Trader Joe’s Marketed the First Reusable Shopping Bag

October 6, 2010 at 4:00 am 9 comments

By Kaye Nemec

About 20 years ago, groceries were often carried in brown paper bags.

One day, someone realized that we were wasting too many trees, so many grocery stores changed to plastic bags. Then somebody realized that plastic bags didn’t decompose in landfills. Now, we’re finally transitioning to reusable bags. These bags cost at least $1 each, sometimes more, and you can re-use them for a long time.

They are an excellent solution to the shopping bag dilemma, at least when you remember to bring them in the store with you. They don’t rip like paper bags and they hold much more weight than plastic bags. But, be careful, you should wash these bags regularly since they can be a breading ground for bacteria.

It turns out that Trader Joe’s was the first super market to offer reusable bags in 1977 with their “save-a-tree” canvas grocery bags.

Most of our international readers and even many of our US readers may not have heard of Trader Joe’s. They’re extremely popular in Southern California and they have stores in about half of the other states. Even if you haven’t heard of Trader Joe’s, you’ve likely heard of their owner, German supermarket giant, Aldi.

Aldi is a global supermarket brand that has been around since 1961. They have over 8,200 stores and operates in 18 countries. Aldi was started by the Albrecht brothers and that’s where the name Aldi comes from — it means, “Albrecht Discount.”

The first Trader Joes was opened by Joe Coulombe in 1967. In 1979 Coulombe sold the company to Theo Albrecht, who created the trust that owns Trader Joe’s to this day.

Despite the relationship, Trader Joe’s and Aldi are very different – Trader Joe’s is a bright, island-themed store filled with hard-to-find, unique and upscale food selections at a great value.  In addition to their innovative selection, Trader Joe’s also offers a wide variety of organic, natural, vegetarian, gluten free and vegan selections.  In fact, in 2007 Trader Joe’s eliminated all added Trans fats from all of their private label products. Trans Fats were just the next thing to go in a list that already included artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.

At Trader Joe’s at least 10 new items can usually be found in the stores each week. You’ll usually have no problem finding an employee to help you with product questions and to ring you up and bag your selections for you. Shopping at Trader Joe’s is an experience, an event, it makes grocery shopping fun.

Like Trader Joe’s, shopping at Aldi is an experience, although in a much different way. It too has a small store format and limited selection with very low prices, but the store looks more like a warehouse – no frills, no decorations and certainly no “character.”  Most of the products are stacked in cardboard boxes on pallets instead of actual shelves. Their slogan, “Honest to Goodness Savings,” sums up their philosophy, which is to bring their customers high quality food at the lowest possible price. Aldi only carries around 1400 of the most frequently purchased household and grocery items and 95% of them are store brand – not name brands you’ll recognize.

At Aldi you have to work a little harder for your savings. With only one register open most of the time, customers are moved through the line quickly and they’re responsible for bagging all of their own groceries at a separate counter to make space for the next guest. Looking for a cart to put your purchases in? You must deposit a quarter in order to get a cart and you’ll get your quarter back when you actually return the cart to the store instead of leaving it in the parking lot.

Domestically, a number of vendors create products under both labels – so some products you find at Aldi may be the same things you find in different packaging at Trader Joe’s. Since Trader Joe’s does not exist in the European market, some of their store brand products have begun to pop up on Aldi shelves there.

The next time someone asks if you want paper or plastic, thanks to Trader Joe’s, you can say “neither.”

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Sources:, Trader Joe’s Timline (PDF),, , Wikipedia (Trader Joe’s, Aldi)

Photos: lululemon (cc), FoldableBags (cc)

Entry filed under: Food and Drink. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sid Ated  |  October 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I can remember as a kid in the UK my mum and my gran both taking their own shopping bags to the local market – along with many other people. What proof is there that shopping bags were invented by Trader Joe’s or Aldi’s for that matter?

  • 2. Steph  |  October 7, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Sounds like you’re selling trader joes. I want one in my city…

    • 3. Chad Upton  |  October 7, 2010 at 7:54 pm

      Ya, I used to live near one but not anymore. I wish there was one in my city too!

  • 4. Fred  |  October 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

    MAYBE Trader Joe’s was the first supermarket to sell reusable shopping bags, but they still hand out plastic one-time use bags (T-shirt bags) like candy to their customers, and have refused – refused – to stop using them despite eco-group pressure. Trader Joe’s idea of delivering WOW customer experience is to give any customer anything they ask for – including as many plastic bags as they want.

  • 5. joel  |  October 7, 2010 at 9:43 am

    I’d say they started the trend, not invented. They offered bags to customers. They didn’t invent bags.

  • 6. Elbyron  |  October 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

    This article seems to be really go off on a tangent. It appears to start about with interesting information about the origin of reusable shopping bags, but then seems to wander off and get distracted by giving us all long descriptions of the two grocery chains. What happened with the bags? Why did they decide to start offering them? What other stores were early adopters? These are the types of questions that should be discussed here… but all I learned is that the U.S. and various other countries have some nifty stores. It’s like a whole separate story!

    • 7. Chad Upton  |  October 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm

      If that’s the case, it’s my fault. Kaye’s original article was just about how Aldi owns Trader Joe’s and I combined it with the reusable bags topic. Sorry if it didn’t flow well.

  • 8. Leonora  |  January 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Another thing about Aldi’s-you MUST bring your own shopping bags or else BUY them from Aldi’s. They charge 10 cents for a large plastic bag, on an average shopping trip you may need 3 bags or so. Thus, you have another incentive to go green and not leave your shopping bags at home!

  • 9. Angela  |  December 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I agree with all that you say, with the exception of, that they have no character. They very much have it! It’s like no other store I’ve gone to and has such a “cute and quaint” character that it draws you in!


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