Bag Wars: Key Concerns for Commercial Stakeholders in the UK
Over recent years, the humble plastic shopping bag has come under increasing fire, thanks to it's well-known environmental and social consequences. Why then, does the plastic bag remain such an integral part of modern consumerism?
To find out, we asked seventeen shoppers around Birmingham City Centre about their own shopping habits, as well as the things they consider when deciding whether or not to use a particular shopping bag.
1. Personal Attitudes And Behavior
For many people, their own behavior and attitudes were to blame for their failure to switch to reusable bags. Often, individuals recognised that certain behaviours were unhelpful, but described them as habitual, entrenched and difficult to overcome.
For instance, 63% of shoppers reported that forgetfulness and laziness were the primary barriers preventing them from making the change. For those who had tried and failed to shun the dreaded plastic carrier bag, forgetfulness was reported as the dominant reason behind their failure; the environmentally-conscious consumer would often purchase reusable bags with the best of intentions, but would default to plastic after leaving their trusty reusables at home.
The idea of "convenience" also appeared frequently throughout; people that took new plastic bags from the till every time they went shopping said that convenience was their key reason for doing so. Interestingly, those who claimed to use reusable bags frequently also cited convenience as a key motivating factor – from their perspective, it was more convenient to use the bags they already had at home, than to take new ones from the till.
These observations are not new; in 2014, the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) reported that of the 1538 UK citizens they interviewed, 50% thought their own forgetfulness was the dominant reason they did not use reusable bags, while an additional 17% alluded to the sheer convenience and availability of plastic. While these attitudes were more frequent among younger respondents, the fact remains that the convenience of plastic and forgetfulness of consumers are critical factors that cannot be ignored when promoting and marketing plastic bag alternatives.
2. Practical Issues
Practical issues closely followed personal behavior on consumers list of top priorities. Most commonly, consumers recognized cost as a key determining factor; while 7% of questionnaire participants claimed that they could not afford to invest in a reusable bag, others believed that in light of the UK's recently introduced carrier bag levy, reusables were more cost-effective in the long-run.
A bag's strength and durability also seemed to affect consumers choices; 8% believed that reusable bags were stronger and more durable, and 35% said that the flimsiness of paper made it a poor alternative to plastic.
3. Environmental Issues
Every consumer interviewed agreed that reducing plastic bag use was important, and all cited environmental reasons for this belief. However, responses here were generally vague, with very few expanding their answer beyond “it is better for the environment." This suggests that while consumers are aware that plastic bags are bad for the environment, they are not aware why, and answers are likely to be reflective of social desirability rather than of consumers actual behaviour. Those that did provide more detail most often mentioned the pollution that plastic bags cause, whereas only one commented on the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels. It is interesting that responses to this question were influenced by the impact of plastic bags on consumers immediate environment – consumers can physically see plastic bag litter in their local area, but perhaps cannot directly witness the effects of petroleum consumption.
47% of participants also said they would view a store more positively if it went plastic bag free, and a further 33% said they would not view the store any differently.
Design of the bag had minimal impact on participant’s conscious decision to use it. Only one person specifically mentioned design as a key feature of their preferred bag, with two others identifying specific brands because of the prints they used.
So what does this mean?
While consumers are somewhat concerned about the effects of plastic bags on the environment, this is not enough to encourage adoption of environmentally friendly alternatives. Rather, the everyday habits and practical concerns of consumers are of most significance and so promotional campaigns should focus on tackling issues of forgetfulness, convenience, cost-efficiency etc. By recognising consumers as a major stakeholder and directly acknowledging their concerns, we are one step closer to solving the plastic bag problem once and for all.