Sentamu urges supermarkets to swap plastic for African sisal

31/07/2011 02:00

Supermarkets can help people in east Africa trade their way out of poverty by swapping plastic bags for sisal products made in countries such as Kenya, according to the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Writing in today's Observer, the archbishop says imaginative solutions to alleviate the plight of the world's poor, often spearheaded by women's groups, offer hope for the future. He challenges designers and buyers: "For the sake of the hungry, think sisal."

Sisal is a central American plant with forarge, sword-shaped leaves that yield stiff fibres used for cord and rope. Kenya produces nearly 30,000 tonnes of these fibres a year.

Sentamu writes: "If only we could ban all plastic bags and replace plastic with sisal in as many contexts as possible: already, many are trading their way out of poverty and hunger - there is scope for far more to do so. I would like to see UK supermarkets buying more sisal products from Africa: sisal grows in very dry conditions and has great potential to raise local income. ."

The Observer's ethical expert, Lucy Siegle, welcomed Sentamu's comments, saying: "As the consumer loses contact with the materials that make everyday products, there is no hope of them engaging with the producer. There's no point adding to the debris of lifestyles if your product doesn't help to lift a marginalised producer out of poverty. The archbishop is quite right that a business model involving women, micro-credit or cooperatives and a fast-growing durable plant that can be exported as a cash crop is a good idea."

According to the anti-waste body, Wrap, 6.4bn single-use plastic bags were used by supermarket customers across the UK in 2010, compared with 10.7bn in 2006.

But Siegle questioned whether big retail chains would embrace Sentamu's call for action. "Supermarkets do not always have the best track record here," she said. "One worries about the sisal-weaving ladies' cooperative being faced with a buyer and an order of a couple of million bags from one of the more rapacious multiples. But, managed carefully, there is surely opportunity."

Sarah Cordey, of the British Retail Consortium, said: "Retailers' decisions are their own business. Many are major supporters of campaigns such as Fairtrade, but consumer demand has a major part to play."

Copyright 2011 Guardian Newspapers Ltd Source: The Financial Times Limited

[2011 July] Buying a sisal bag can make a real difference to Africa's starving millions