In the 1990s, the plastic bag killed the Soviet Union’s disabled-run industries. Now one Russian social enterprise has brought it back to life, helping hundreds of the country’s blind and deaf with an idea made in the USSR.
MOSCOW, Russia — In the Soviet Union, there were almost no plastic bags. Under communism, a plastic bag was so prized, people were rumored to wash them after use. Instead of plastic, most people had one of those string bags that look like miniature cargo loaders for ships and that you can’t keep small things in.
And so one of the lesser-known consequences of the fall of the Iron Curtain was that Russia was suddenly flooded with plastic bags. Easy-to-use, disposable plastic bags became the norm there in the ’90s, and no one cared about the consequences for string shopping bags or the planet. Nevertheless, going from string to disposable bags came with a price, and a serious one. Beyond teaching Russians throwaway-plastic consumption, the fall of the Soviet Union suddenly left thousands of disabled people discarded.
Back in the USSR, everyone had to work, including handicapped people. Whatever the Soviet authorities might have claimed about there being no disabled people in the nation, in reality they knew there were thousands, and they needed jobs. And so the authorities made the string shopping bag industry an industry for the blind. According to Evgueni Rapoport, an experienced Russian social worker, back then around 10,000 blind people earned a living from this work, laboring in factories that received public funds to employ disabled people. The work allowed them to live decent lives while making good use of their uniquely developed sense of touch (people deprived of sight tend to overdevelop their other senses). It was a win-win combination that produced nine out of 10 string shopping bags at the time.
But when the USSR collapsed, so did full employment. The most immediate victims were the most vulnerable, and Russia’s blind workers quickly found themselves out of work. Most never found a job again, being too handicapped, too old or too unwanted. These days the Russian state provides them with scant disability and retirement pensions according to the degree of their handicap. The Swiss Life Network’s Employee Reference Manual 2013 says these pensions range from 1,639 rubles (around $50 U.S.) to 9,835 rubles (around $300) per month in 2012; the subsistence level totaled 6,792 rubles ($226) for active working-age people and 4,961 rubles ($165) for retirees. All and all, the shutdown of the string bag industry condemned most of these blind workers and many others to strict poverty.
Rapoport decided to give a second chance to both unemployed disabled people and string shopping bags. In 2009 he created “Avoska Darit Nadezhda”—literally, “bags that give hope.” The name refers to the hope that employment gives, and indirectly to the millions of families in the USSR that hoped they might bring back some food when they went grocery shopping with their string shopping bags. Initially, Rapoport launched the project with a nonprofit organization called Service, which is dedicated to training and employing blind people in a factory in Kanash, Chuvashia, 434 miles east of Moscow. There, around 30 people dedicated their time making the new generation of string shopping bags, which were then sent by train to Moscow.
But this endeavor soon turned out to be not profitable enough, as the taxes on employee earnings were too high: 40 rubles for every 100 earned. The project, called Avoska, is better off tax-free, with each worker self-employed and only a six-ruble tax for every 100 earned. Now workers make the bags from their homes in the Moscow area, after being trained in Avoska’s Moscow workshop. Depending on the season, Avoska employs between 20 and 100 visually impaired and deaf people to make the bags, which allows them to earn revenue in addition to their disability pension. Blind workers dedicate themselves to weaving, while deaf workers are prized for tinting and sewing handles.
“On average, each person earns between 100 and 130 rubles [$3 to $4] per bag, regarding its complexity, and can make up to 150 to 200 bags per month, regarding its work speed and willingness,” Rapoport said during the first international conference on social innovation in Russia, held in October in Moscow.
The work Avoska provides usually allows his workers to earn up to 15,000 to 20,000 rubles per month ($470 to $630), and sometimes up to 30,000 rubles ($943). The average wage in Russia in 2013 is 25,936 rubles ($815). The project is quite ingenious, as it allies personal work and its self-validation with quality handmade and diverse products. Aside from additional money for the workers, the sales generate enough funds to invest in more bag production and jobs, as well as nonprofit educational projects.
Beyond replacing the disposable plastic bag, Avoska is giving the string shopping bag a face-lift: Each bag is always handmade and hand-dyed, and comes in different sizes and colors with different types of handles. Some of the most famous Russian designers, such as Denis Simachev or the muscovite football club Spartak, have designed limited editions of the bag to support the project. The initiative is a real success. As of November 2012, more than 70 million bags had been sold.
“Avoska’s objective now is to produce 10 million bags per year,” Rapoport said. Regarding sales, he notes that “50 percent of the purchases are made by companies for corporate gifts.” The rest are sold in a small shop on Moscow’s main Tverskaya Avenue or by remote selling in Russia and abroad. On average, the turnover is around 4 million rubles per season ($126,000).
Avoska is well-known in Russia now; in 2012 Rapoport was voted Entrepreneur of the Year by smallbusiness.ru, an online platform for entrepreneurial businesses in Russia. But for the time being it doesn’t receive any government support. “Avoska doesn’t receive any government help, as it deeply disagrees on the conditions imposed by the government for it,” Rapoport explained. These conditions include hiring a fixed number of permanent staff, renting big offices and changing manufacturing practices to meet the number of security regulations in place. The conditions are too rigid for the financial compensation offered in return, roughly 2.5 million rubles in 2012 ($80,000). So far, Avoska is doing fine without the government’s help, although it wouldn’t refuse it if the offer was changed.
Through Avoska, going grocery shopping becomes a humane experience. It definitely makes one think about the notions of material and human disposability in a world where plastic and mass firings are common practice. These simple string shopping bags highlight how politicians in the USSR, as well as businesses these days, unexpectedly turned weaknesses into strengths. Oddly enough, it’s social innovation that’s back from the USSR.