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Carriers of History

A history of Sainsbury's carrier bags

The way we carry our shopping has changed significantly during the time Sainsbury’s has been trading. The world is still dealing with complex environmental issues around the types of bags we choose. The Sainsbury Archive provides some interesting details on the story so far.


The earliest surviving bag in our collection is a paper one dating from the 1880s. It is quite small, measuring only 27.5cm x 23cm.


Bags of this size were used to hold eggs, which Sainsbury’s sold loose for much of its history.


Customers needing to carry large quantities of shopping would typically bring their own wicker baskets as they could not expect branches to provide bags with handles.


In the early 20th century various designs were printed onto paper bags to promote different products.


These items are also excellent records of the different slogans Sainsbury’s has used over the years.


With the advent of self-service shops in the 1950s Sainsbury’s started selling stronger paper bags with handles. Customers could buy large bags for 4d and smaller ones for 3d.


From 1978 customers were able to choose between paper or plastic bags. Even as they introduced them the company was aware of ‘Future trends and ecological problems’ relating to plastic bags, and intended ‘to keep their use to an absolute minimum’.


Sainsbury’s offered a selection of more hardwearing bags intended for reuse in the 1980s. Several featured imagery from the Sainsbury Archive collection.


There was also a type with special wooden handles and flaps to enable easy transfer from a trolley to a car.


Just over a decade after plastic bags became available, Sainsbury’s introduced its first ever carrier bags made with recycled plastic.


The ‘Penny Back’ scheme, begun in 1990, encouraged customers to reuse bags by refunding them a penny for every one they brought back. Soon customers were reusing over 60 million bags each year and raising thousands of pounds for local charities by donating their pennies in stores.


In the 2000s the range of more durable ‘bags for life’ available at Sainsbury’s expanded greatly. In recent years retailers in the UK have been legally required to charge for plastic bags, further reducing their use.


Amidst all these changes there is one notable trend: bags with designs from the Sainsbury Archive tend to be popular!