“Would you like a bag with that?” The pleasure and pain of going plastic-free.

Alison Brown | Group Account Director Marketing, Sales, Trends

Last month I found myself jumping on a much-hyped consumer bandwagon.

During Plastic Free July, I bought a kit online and made solid shampoo bars. The kit cost a whopping $40 and I can only assume the price factors in the cost of ingredients, shipping and the smugness I felt after successfully washing my hair with a bar of soap I made from scratch.

The soap performed incredibly well. It lathered beautifully, smelt divine and as a bonus (pointed out by my kids who used it suspiciously) didn’t make anyone’s hair fall out.

Like many consumers, I’ve been searching for ways to reduce waste and cut back on the amount of plastic we bring into the house. Making shampoo bars was relatively easy and it’s something I could involve the kids in. I felt good because I believed I was doing something good for the planet. 

My purchase was also an example of how clever marketers tap into the collective consciousness to influence consumer behaviour. Consumers like to think they buy things through free will. In reality, the vast majority of our buying decisions are influenced by people and things around us.

The consumer bandwagon-effect is a phenomenon where people mimic the buying choices of other people. During Plastic Free July, not only were marketers encouraging us to jump on the bandwagon and buy more eco-friendly products, they were urging us to adopt new behaviours and think twice before accepting a plastic bag at the checkout.

Supermarket corporates are also hoping the bandwagon-effect will motivate more people to use reusable bags when they do their grocery shopping.

Last year, Countdown was the first supermarket in New Zealand to announce a move away from single-use plastic bags by the end of 2018. In doing so, it sparked a catalyst for change and the wave of support from customers and environmental groups affirmed Countdown’s decision and convinced other New Zealand retailers to follow Countdown’s lead. From a PR perspective, it was a stroke of genius. Their desire to remove around 350 million plastic bags from circulation each year was commendable.

However, the plastic bag-free transition hasn’t been plain sailing. Countdown announced ten of its 180 stores would be removing all single-use bags on May 21. It later copped criticism for continuing to offer customers a 15c plastic bag at the checkout – one that could be used 20 times.

To Countdown’s credit, it never claimed to have all the answers from the outset. Instead, its PR department was very clear that the move away from 350 million plastic bags would “take a fair bit of work behind the scenes and by our team in our stores – these first ten stores will test our thinking, our training and our processes to ultimately help ensure a smooth transition for all our customers and team when we make the change across the country.”

In Australia, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths are also implementing a single-use plastic bag-free policy across most states. They too have been dealing with the backlash of offering 15c reusable bags, with a tidal wave of customer resentment forcing both companies to ultimately back-pedal and offer customers the slightly thicker plastic bags for free until customers get used to bringing their own.

With Coles and Woolworths caught off guard by the outpouring of “plastic bag rage” from disgruntled customers, they’re probably asking themselves, “What went wrong?”

It would seem the disconnect has to do with the difference between our attitude to things and our behaviour.

Customers are frequently surveyed for their attitudes and opinions. In Australia, a Woolworths’ survey found that 75 per cent of customers supported the plastic bag ban.

But behaviour researchers in Australia have pointed out that even though people may like the idea of bringing their own bags, making that change is a struggle because it involves a different part of the brain. Getting into neuroscience, the prefrontal cortex says, “Yes of course I can do that, but the prehistoric brain says, “I’ll just keep doing what I’ve always done.”

Researchers says the plastic bag fiasco in Australia shows why polling is a futile marketing exercise. Of greater value is testing – do an experiment and see how many people get angry. That’s where Countdown seems to have the edge over their Aussie counterparts – they tested consumer behaviour for the 15c bags in a small number of stores early.

Only time will tell how quickly New Zealanders adapt to the single-use plastic bag ban. For many people, change is hard and it’s possible that the consumer backlash seen across the Tasman may still arrive here. But I’m already seeing more people use reusable bags when they do their grocery shopping and that’s motivating me to jump on that bandwagon too.

For me, the Australian plastic bag debacle is proof that some people like to be outraged and personal responsibility is becoming a thing of the past. The supermarkets have let us know in advance they’re withdrawing the single-use bags. If people spent as much time embracing the change as they do wringing their hands over the inconvenience it causes, we’d all be better off.