Building brands in a changing society

Kicking the plastic bag habit

There may be few things as difficult to change as an ingrained habit. This is especially true when the new, preferred behaviour requires consumers to give up some of their comfort or convenience.

For this reason, entire industries have sprung up around the issue of behaviour change, specifically shifting consumers from established daily routines to new behaviours that offer socially positive outcomes. This field continues to grow in importance as environmental issues require more action on the part of individuals, whether it’s using less energy at home, taking public transit more often or replacing disposable plastic shopping bags with reusable ones.

In fact, a closer look at the seemingly simple task of asking consumers to cut down on their plastic bag usage quickly reveals how difficult it can be to effectively change behaviour.

As detailed in the 2009 Plastic Bag Report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, jurisdictions around the world have struggled with the question of how best to get rid of the environmental and aesthetic challenge posed by plastic bag waste. Attempts have ranged from outright bans – largely unpopular with the plastic bag lobby and often overturned in court—to various tax and fee schemes.

Case studies in behaviour change

Two municipalities in particular, San Francisco and Toronto, offer instructive case studies in how efforts to change behaviour can succeed or fail. In San Francisco, the intention was to wean consumers off plastics but the ban only applied to large grocery stores and pharmacy chains. Independent stores were free to continue dispensing plastic. And retailers could still offer bags as long as they were paper or reusable plastic.

The results? The Plastic Bag Report found that all bag litter actually increased as a percentage of litter in the year after the ban was implemented. Since bags were still doled out freely at checkout, consumers had little incentive to build up their own collection of reusable bags. The ban simply encouraged consumers shopping at certain stores to switch to paper bags.

Compare this to the plastic bag program in Toronto, implemented in 2009. Retailers still provided plastic bags but charged a 5 cents fee for every one requested by their customers. Retailers also had to accept any reusable container brought in by the customer in lieu of a plastic bag. Smart retailers across the city seized on the business opportunity by selling branded reusable containers and bags, making the switch that much easier for consumers.

The program is considered a success. The CBC reported that grocery chains Metro and Sobeys have seen their provincial plastic bag distribution rate drop by over 70% since the start of the program.

Designing a social transformation

The difference is clearly in the design of the programs. And, as explained by Tatyana Mamut, senior content guide at IDEO, during the Sustainable Brands 2010 Conference, program design is essential when attempting to change daily habits on a large scale.

“What we’re really talking about is the transformation of a social system,” said Mamut. “Social systems are comprised of people. They’re comprised of what people do, what they think and how they interact with one another.”

IDEO is a design consulting firm that focuses on the role of rules, tools and norms in changing behaviour.  As described by Mamut, rules are the formalized laws, policies and procedures that regulate behaviour. In San Francisco, the plastic bag ban applied to only select stores while the Toronto bylaw applied to all retailers. And it provided a disincentive for the undesirable behavior in the form of a 5 cent fee.

Tools are technologies, spaces, objects – anything that helps consumers to adopt new behaviours. In Toronto, the tools are the reusable bags for sale at most checkout counters, making the switch from plastic that much easier.

Finally, norms are the values, beliefs and cultural assumptions that guide behaviour. Often norms are shaped by advertising, public relations and other forms of communications. Canadian grocery chain Loblaw helped establish new norms by publicly announcing its commitment to reduce plastic bag usage across the entire country. When the company instituted a 5 cent fee per bag on a national basis, with partial proceeds donated to environmental charities, it positioned reusable bags as not just socially acceptable but virtuous.

IDEO’s model underscores the importance of a multi-pronged approach when attempting to transform behaviour. A public policy on its own isn’t enough. Consumers also need the right tools, even those as simple as reusable bags, along with a nudge from advertising, community leaders and other forms of social pressure.


4 Responses to “Kicking the plastic bag habit”

  1. matt strand

    hey stephanie. interesting writing. check this video out. funny. very funny.


  2. Karen

    Hi Stephanie,

    I think behaviour change really has to take place at the place where food is packaged. To say to the end consumer: “You’re the problem..stop using those PLASTIC bags” is such a twisted deflection from the true evil!

    Why is it that we take home yogurt in plastic that will take 500 years to begin decomposition in landfills? This is the crime. And the consumer has no control over it.

    The fees should be applied to every package that is not decomposable within 1 year in landfills. Then if grocery stores shelve illegally packaged food, they should pay a fee to put it on the shelf. Let’s put those 5 cent fees where they belong — against packagers and grocery store magnates — and leave the consumer alone!

    • Stephanie Myers

      Hi Karen,

      You make an excellent point about packaging being the bigger opportunity for reducing waste. Beyond plastic bags, corporations need to look at how food and household goods are packaged and look for ways to reduce or eliminate wherever possible. The plastic bag is definitely a small piece in a larger puzzle.



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