The LCBO’s empty “promise to the planet”


In the spring of 2008, the LCBO put out a flyer with a piece written by its Chairman, Bob Peter. It was called “Promise to the Planet,” and it talked about how the LCBO (Ontario’s government-owned booze-retail monopoly) aimed to improve its environmental stewardship by replacing plastic bags with paper bags.


It wasn’t all that different from other pieces of corporate enviro-bragging I’d seen, but, given the LCBO’s record on the environment, it was, to say the least, deceptive. The fact that I, as a captive of the LCBO’s monopoly, had helped to underwrite the deception made it all the more painful.


I live near the Parkdale Market in Ottawa, a neighbourhood that for many years had an LCBO.  The Wellington-Holland store was located at a busy intersection in a medium-to-high-density part of the city.  It was served by six different bus routes, including four express bus routes. A very high percentage of its patrons arrived on foot, many others by transit.


And, with no other LCBO nearby, it was busy.  According to the store manager, this LCBO had the highest sales per square foot of any store in Ottawa. 


For no good reason, and despite protests, the LCBO closed this store and “replaced” it with a big-box outlet a couple of kilometres to the west.  Needless to say, the LCBO would not have done so if it were in a competitive business.  No privately-owned chain would shut down its most popular store.  


The LCBO closed the store because, as a monopoly, it could, and, it would appear, because its “market strategy” calls for having more big-box stores with adjacent parking lots.


So a large swath of central Ottawa has no LCBO store.  If you live anywhere near the midpoint between the north end of Bank Street and the new big-box store − a distance of more than 7 kilometres − you’re out of luck.  Especially if you don’t own a car.  And you’re out of luck if, because you care about the environment, you like to walk, or take transit, to buy a bottle of wine.


The new store is in a lower-density part of the city.  It’s too far away from the medium-to-high density neighbourhoods of Hintonburg, Little Italy, Elmdale and Mechanicsville to be considered a reasonable walk. And public transit isn’t much help − bus service is infrequent, slow and inconvenient, less than 20 per cent of what it was at the old store.


At this point, I think it’s useful to point out that urban planners have a pretty good idea of how far people will walk to do their common errands.  The concept of a “walkshed” has it that people are apt to walk up to a kilometre and a half to do such errands.*


Sadly, thanks to the LCBO’s closing of the Wellington-Holland store, more than ten thousand people in central-west Ottawa live more than 2 kilometres from their nearest LCBO.  Thousands of people who used to walk to buy a bottle of wine − something most people in Europe do as a matter of course − are now forced to do a little more driving.


These additional car trips will, over the years, put thousands of tonnes of CO2 and particulates into the air − pollution that would not have occurred had the LCBO kept the popular store open.



I suppose there is a kind of “promise to the planet” implicit in all this, but it’s not a welcome one.


Now of course if wine were sold in privately owned local stores, as it is in most of countries, my neighbours and I would be able to walk to our choice of several wine stores.  Because we cannot, I think it behoves the LCBO to actually be a green retailer, as opposed to pretending that it is.


Needless to say, the environmental cost of closing of the Wellington-Holland store completely overwhelms the relatively trivial effects of replacing plastic bags with paper bags.  Until the LCBO factors client transportation into its store location policies, the LCBO will remain a significant contributor to environmental degradation.


April 2009


two women briskly walking together

Walking at least half an hour a day, six days a week, can cut mortality rates from heart disease in half.



* On the concept of a “walkshed” − from the New York Times, 20 March 2008 


WALK THE WALK (NYT 2008-04-20):  In many parts of the country, walking has become as quaint a pastime as spinning yarn or playing the bagpipes. Between 1977 and 1995, the number of daily walking trips taken by adults declined by 40 percent − while more than a quarter of all car trips are now shorter than a mile. Those under-a-mile journeys fall into the zone that new urbanists call “walkshed”: the area a person can reasonably cover on foot. People whose walksheds teem with shops and restaurants have more reason to walk than those whose don’t.


An economics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis suggests that raising gasoline prices by $1 a gallon would reduce American obesity by 9 percent. Another study posits that if every American spent 30 minutes a day walking or cycling instead of driving, we would collectively cut carbon emissions by 64 million tons and shed more than three billion pounds of excess flab. All of this sounds great in theory, but most people find that their good intentions falter when faced with the extra time it takes to walk. Yet Alan Durning, an environmental researcher whose blog about living without a car inspired Walk Score, argues that walking may be the ultimate timesaver. He cites a British study that suggests that for every minute you walk, you live about three minutes longer. “You’re not using time,” Durning argues; “you’re generating time.”


POSTSCRIPT  Are paper bags better than plastic bags, as the LCBO states?  It’s a complex question, and the answer depends on many variables.  Reducing the disposal of bags benefits the environment.  Thus reduced use of single-usage bags is good.  Too many plastic bags are not re-used.  But plastic bags are re-used, while paper bags almost never are.


Overall, plastic bags have many advantages over paper bags.  See, for example:

Too bad the LCBO doesn’t know this.