Shagbags strive to become new 'it bag' in Annapolis

By KATIE ARCIERI, Staff Writer
Published March 25, 2008

J. Henson - The Capital Stefanie DiBenedetto of Arnold, left, and Alli Oliver of Sherwood Forest speak to a client while working in Ms. Oliver's home. The Duo are the owners of Shagbags, eco-friendly reusable grocery and shopping bags.

On her last shopping trip to South Moon Under, Alli Oliver didn't use a plastic bag to wrap up her purchase. Instead, the Annapolis resident took out her Shagbag, a reusable tote designed to carry everything from flip-flops and a change of gym clothes to an armload of groceries.

In January, she and her business partner Stefanie DiBenedetto launched Shagbag LLC, hoping their line of eco-friendly handbags would encourage Annapolitans to go green and cash in on the anti-plastic movement in Annapolis and around the country.

"If people are carrying something because they think it makes them look good, then those things tend to kick off trends," Ms. Oliver said.

It is currently working with a venture capitalist and expects to "have our funding in place in 30 days," she said.

Shagbag is starting up at a time of growing concern over the environment and an increased interest in reusable personal bags. Whole Foods announced last year it would quit using plastic bags. Mainstream grocery stores, which offer paper or plastic bags, are selling reusable versions for around $1. The Australian company Envirosax offers bags made of materials such as polyester, linen and hemp, for between $8.50 and about $40.

But the two local women decided to create a $14 bag that also would serve as a fashion accessory. They found a breathable waterproof material for the bag called Tyvek that could be rolled into a ball and gets "softer and more buttery the more you use it," Ms. Oliver said.

Ms. DiBenedetto, a self-taught graphic designer, and Ms. Oliver, an artist and entrepreneur, found a manufacturer in China and designed Shagbag. Now 20,000 totes are in production and are set to arrive at the doorstep of Ms. Oliver's Sherwood Forest home next month.

Ms. Oliver said she expects sales to double over the next five years. The women said Shagbag has already placed about 45 orders with stores including a children's shop in Bethesda, a cafe in Beverly Hills and a company in Japan. A chamber of commerce in Westchester County New York ordered bags for an Earth Day celebration, she said. The company is doing price estimates for City Sports, a 14-store sports chain with locations from Boston to Baltimore and Atlanta.

The idea for Shagbag was spurred in part by the movement to reduce dependence on non-biodegradable materials.

Alderman Sam Shropshire, D-Ward 7, introduced a ban on plastic bags that eventually failed last year. Additionally, Del. Todd Schuler, D-Baltimore County, introduced a bill calling for a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags that died this year.

Mr. Shropshire, who worked with Mr. Schuler on the state legislation, said he hadn't heard of Shagbag, but commended the company for its efforts.

"One reusable bag will take the place of 1,000 plastic bags within a year," he said. "I would love to meet with them and talk with them and help them with their kickoff."

And some local business owners are showing interest. Michele Deckman, owner of high-end Annapolis clothing boutique Diva, said she thinks the bags are "really cute," adding that Ms. Oliver shops at her store and wraps purchases in a Shagbag.

Ms. Deckman, who also serves as board vice president of the Annapolis Business Association, said the group is looking into the idea of a citywide reusable bag that businesses could sell in their stores and promote with discounts.

"It would be a great way to raise funds for the association and be environmentally friendly," she said.

Sean Scales, chief operating officer of City Sports, said his company also is considering reusable bags, saying Shagbag is "in the running."

"We're looking to see that as a next step and to basically jump the gun on the legislation as well," he said.

Meanwhile, his company will launch a new bag in May that contains an additive enabling it to degrade within 24 months when disposed of in a landfill.

Some people say reusable bags aren't for everyone.

Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council, said the bags do not "fit every lifestyle" and don't encourage the recycling of plastic bags, something that's on the rise. Mr. Christman, whose group represents plastic bag manufacturers, said 812 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled in 2006, a 24 percent increase over the year before.

Ms. Oliver and Ms. DiBenedetto met through their connections at the $250 million Park Place development in Annapolis. Ms. Oliver is a partner with Bethesda-based StreetSense, a company that handles retail leasing for the project.

Ms. DiBenedetto's husband is launching Carpaccio, a new Italian restaurant set to open at Park Place this spring.

Both environmentally conscious women, they felt the plastic bags provided at upscale stores were too nice to toss, but you end up "with a section of your house for the folded nice bags," Ms. Oliver said.

And Ms. DiBenedetto said reusable bags on the market weren't cute enough.

"We're like why can't they be pink? Why can't they be embroidered?" she said.

Ms. Oliver said Shagbag is aimed to a target audience "interested in carrying handbags that have some status with them or they're conscious of labels and brands." Her company is pitching the product to retail boutiques, and large companies from Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus, as well as Target and Wal-Mart for wholesale orders. Retailers and customers also can have their bags customized with signature graphics, not labels that will look like a "screaming advertisement," Ms. Oliver said.

(Revised Mar 2008)