Why the majority of supermarket shoppers do not use re-usable canvas shopping bags & what this teaches us about human nature


Recently my young son had to come up with an idea for a school project about some aspect of climate change. Being a kid he has a fascination with rubbish tips and, following our latest “tip run”, wanted to know why there was so many plastic bags there. So he decided that for his project he would like to find out how many people used plastic shopping bags versus re-usable canvas bags at the local supermarket. He asked me to help him. So we sat behind the check-out at the nearby Safeway’s and counted the type of bags 500 customers used.

Despite all the focus on reducing land fill only 40% of the people counted used re-usable canvas bags. These results astonished me and I did two subsequent counts on my own (500 each time) to determine whether the initial results were an aberration.  They weren’t. Both were within 5% of the first count.

No doubt if I had bothered to ask people why they didn’t use re-usable bags I would have been told that they usually do but forgot this one time. Sure you did! If I had then asked them if they ever leave home without their mobile phone or wallet no doubt I would have got a different answer…

Switching to re-usable canvas shopping bags is a relatively easy behavioural change to make. You buy a few recyclable bags ($1 each) and you bring them along with you when you shop. What’s so difficult? Then why did approximately 900 of the 1,500 people surveyed not do it?

The answer is simple. It was voluntary and there were no penalties if you didn’t do it. Nobody was going to fine you or deduct de-merit points. Compare this to the laws pertaining to the compulsory wearing of seat belts; talking on your mobile phone while driving or even the recent mandatory water restrictions on households. All carried financial penalties and all consequently produced high levels of compliance. It seems that the “stick” is a more effective inducement than the “carrot” in situations like these…

The shopping bag example provides an interesting insight into human behaviour which businesses can learn from. At the heart of it is the “what’s in it for me?” question.  It seems that reducing land fill (and carbon emissions) was not a big enough reason for the majority of supermarket shoppers to make a simple behavioural change to canvas shopping bags. Why? Because there was no immediate tangible benefit to them. Nor was there a penalty if they didn’t do it. So they chose to remain with the status quo (i.e. plastic shopping bags). It’s a classic study in cause and effect.

Businesses that walk in the customers shoes and constantly develop and refine their offers to enhance the “what’s in it for me” equation for them are on the right track. Customers are smart and they can smell a compelling offer a mile off. They will change their behaviour if you make it worth their while to do so. They won’t if you don’t. It’s that simple…

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  1. Chocolat

    40% use reusable bags?  That’s incredible!  I was expecting more like 1%.  Where do you live?  I have yet to see another person use a reusable bag when I go to Whole Foods or any other shop in the SF Bay Area.

    • Hi thanks for the comments. The writer is based in Melbourne Australia. I think we have (in Sydney) a similar split… 30-40% use recycled bags.
      Thanks for reading

  2. I want to defend the plastic grocery bag.

    I “recycle” it by using it to collect and throw out recyclables in our apartment (we live in a 4th-floor walk-up, so these smaller bags make trips downstairs easier on our school-age kids); I used them to cover the cast over my foot when I went out in the rain (using public transportation in NYC…not driving from my sheltered garage to a covered parking deck); and I use them occasionally to wrap around containers with my lunch for work.

    Conversely, if I *didn’t* have those plastic grocery bags, I’d be buying a lot more specialized bags to do all the above.

    What a waste.

    • Hi Howard, we do the same… when the Environmental Protection Agency reported only 1% of plastic bags were recycled, significant attention resulted in a 700% growth in the recycling industry as new capacity led to a 7% rate. This resulted in more than 800 million lbs of bags and other film being recycled in 2007. Each ton of recycled plastic bags saves the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil, although most bags are produced from natural gas derived stock.

      A recent Australian study showed more than 60% of bags are reused as bin liners and for other purposes, the 7% recycling rate account for 17.5% of bags available for recycling.

      According to the UK’s Environment Agency, 76% of carrier bags are reused. An estimated 90% of individuals reuse plastic bags, and 56% of individuals reuse all plastic shopping bags.

  3. Great article. Something so simple as remembering your own bag can have such a huge impact.  Here in Berlin (in Germany) it is just part of the culture to take your own bag.  If you forget then you have to pay (I think this makes a big difference) for either a sturdy plastic bag (which can be re-used), a canvas/material bag or freely use the boxes that the groceries were shipped to the store in.  Culture change can happen!

    • Hi Alice,

      I had the un-fortunate situation recently where I went to ALDI
      supermarkets in Sydney (German perhaps?) and forgot my bag.
      Furthermore, they do not offer them, so I had to run embarrassingly to
      the middle of the store where I purchased a plastic basket… I have
      never forgotten to take my bags since and the basket is a storage
      basket now for our recycling under the kitchen sink.

      I think with any change, there needs to be some form of catalyst,
      humans are very good at reacting… not very good at really seeing/
      foresight. Legislation is one thing, but I think you are right, remove
      the temptation and make people shift there behaviours without option.

      It is why I am so passionate about ridding the western world of
      bottled water, we dont need it, it is just easy. There is a simple
      solution, planning.

      Thanks for reading.

  4. In the supermarkets here in SA they charge for carrier bags. They also offer a great range of reusable bags made by local communities and supporting various environmental causes. I’m not sure how well this translates to reduced carrier bag use, but I certainly see people with the bags everywhere. 

    Like loosecanvas I sometimes deliberately buy plastic bags to use as bin liners for my swing bin and my mum uses them for the dog. 

  5. Ben

    Legislation can be useful in behaviour change, but it will only be useful for a sample of the population – mainly the late adopters of the behaviour. 

    A range of factors determine whether someone will use a bag/adopt a behaviour.  1. Is it an easy to use a re-usable bag?  2. Do you see a reason for using a bag?  3. Are there incentives/disincentives (legislation etc)?

    The above three points can be applied to business:
    1. Is your product good and easy to use/designed well/useful to consumers? 2. Do consumers need your product – will it make their life easier? 3. What do I get out of this product/service/business?

    There’s never a sinlge solution to behaviour change….

  6. Here’s something to consider in your study.

    Sometimes I use my re-usable shopping bags.
    Sometimes I don’t, so that I can re-use the plastic bags I take home as bathroom garbage can liners and poop bags for my dog. 

  7. Marjorie_Dufek

    Once stores start charging folks for the plastic bags, the behavior will change really quickly. Seems like store could even give them away to get folks started…Now that I’ve gotten in the habit of using cloth bags, I prefer them immensely. They hold more, sit nicely in the trunk, besides being “green”.

  8. Mick

    The stick is useful, as is removing the other option (ie: stop supplying bags)

    Some places down the coast have removed the option. Seems to work.

  9. Rick

    that’s why a market based emissions trading system or tax is best

  10. Earlville

    Very nice bit of work there Bull. What a lucky son to have you as a father, and mentor.
    The ‘Why don’t people do what’s right?’ conundrum may also be explored through the footy kid and mudslide concept.
    A few years back, the front page of the HeraldSun featured a young kid who died from a kick to the head while playing in a footy comp in Belgrave.
    You should have seen the amount of column inches of journalistic anguish over one freak accident.
    And in that same issue, on that same day, was a very small story on page 11 about some 72,000 Chinese who’d died in massive mudslides.
    There was not one mention  of the enormous death toll in China in the daily broadcast media.
    Why? Because the scale of the loss was inconceivable.
    China was simply beyond the average person’s ability to even imagine it. Scale is everything.
    Stalin captured this with his ‘One person killed is a tragedy. Twenty million dead is a statistic’.
    I think climate change is the same. It’s just too big and too distant for most people to get a grip on it.
    And in one of life’s cute paradoxes, the bigger the threat, the more remote and unlikely it seems to most of us.
    ‘Landfill? What’s that? Dunno. Too hard. Too far away. So I don’t need to worry.’
    Also, the ‘Not in my lifetime’ view means there is no need to worry now, and hence no need to change routine, habits, behaviours.
    Only when the threatened sea level rise actually shows up as two inches of water in our lounge room will climate change become real.
    And even then, I wonder if the average person will master the conversion of conceptual ‘pollution’ into solid and painful personal outcomes.
    People’s primitive urge for stability and security paradoxically means they will cling to the known, rather than risk the unknown.
    Laziness is just as much a driver as fear in resisting change. 
    Over time, people will embrace awful conditions as normal and become inured to the discomfort. 
    A good example was the post-depression generation in Britain, resistant for many years  resistant to consumerism and against any debt of borrowing.
    History shows that these people will bizarrely forego improvements – to them, an unknown world – and cling on to the known.
    A strange case of ‘Familiarity breeds content’. 
    Look back and recall how Governments have worked our known pain points to get us to comply with some awful policy.
    The crazy Wilson Labor years in the UK, for example, with 98% income tax. Even when tax was at 80%, people still put up with it.
    However, history also reveals that with enough pain or pressure, we can change massively in the blink of an eye.
    For example, when disaster threatens. Such as an invading army, which can turn a whole country into defence mode overnight.
    The great example of this was the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
    500 Knights, plus a handful of extras totalling 6,100 men, successfully defended their island, fighting off an invasion force of 48,000 Ottomans.
    Another example of our natural blindness to change is embodied in the tsunami response.
    Now a wave, dramatically peaking up and breaking with a roar on the beach is one thing.
    But a tsunami, such as the 2004 Boxing Day event, wasn’t big dramatic waves, but just a quiet surge.
    But a surge without end, and without precedent, which is why everyone was taken by surprise.
    And I’m sure that’s what climate change will be like. Surprising us with a surge of change we hadn’t expected.
    Did you know, in the last two million years, the earth’s polarity has changed several times; north becoming south?
    And the earth’s axis has continually changed. The North Pole axis was once in the middle of Hudson’s Bay, Canada.
    The North Magnetic Pole is constantly on the go. Since the birth of Christ, it has scooted some 10,000 miles around the Arctic.
    Also of interest, prior to the several ice ages the earth has gone through, there was a sudden escalation in temperature.
    Cold is the default condition. Hot seldom lasts. 
    When Vikings were sailing around Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period 950 – 1250AD, there was less sea ice than now.
    We know the weather in that region was stable and mild, hence good crops and lifestyle that Greenland Vikings enjoyed for awhile.
    But it all ended after 300 years, and for almost 100 years of increasing cold they clung on, going downhill, until they simply disappeared.
    They just adapted, and accommodated increasing privations, unable to give up what they thought they had of value, and go somewhere better.
    Climate change? It’s been constantly changing, including extremes.
    A friend is exploring the Oxus River, from the Indian Ocean up to Afghanistan, where they have discovered ancient civilisations pre-dating the Egyptians.
    The evidence is showing that massive climate change wiped out two widespread civilisations, with wide geographical spreads.
    Whilst there is no doubt that pollution has to stop, and has an effect, I sometimes wonder if we have rolled natural change and pollution into one.
    And by making the whole thing so big, most people simply cannot conceive it in relation to their lives, and hence appear indifferent to it.
    We can deal with local soil erosion, and go and plant trees or collect plastic from a creek. But saving the entire planet? Too big!
    Anyhow, who can explain (with evangelical moralising) how a few little plastic bags can make our planet have a meltdown?
    Humans generally can really only connect with human-size problems with a foreseeable outcome.
    Beyond that, most people feel powerless and thus remain disengaged.
    To engage us in reducing pollution, we have to actually see cause and effect.
    And it both cause and effect have to impact directly on our lives.
    (Hypothetical conversation)
    ‘My life won’t improve by using a cotton bag.
    So why would I even bother?
    Unless to avoid your scorn.’

    • Wow, thanks Earlville for taking the time to go into so much detail. So much to digest, amazing thanks.

  11. Needle

     Re shopping bags….
    The reason we don’t do it are this.
    i) We re-use the shopping bags as rubbish bags. Otherwise we would have to buy separate rubbish bags with no effect on reducing plastic bags consumption. Do people using the canvas bags buy plastic bin liners as well?
    ii) We re-use the shopping bags for dog-pickup otherwise again we would have to buy bags.
    Understand your point though…

    • Eva

      I use reusable shopping bags. I do not use bin liners, except for one big one in the kitchen. The rest of my smaller bins do not need liners they are unnecessary. I dump my smaller bins into my big bin in the kitchen. My boyfriend has a dog and he uses old chip bags, potato bags etc, to pick up dog poop. He does not use plastic grocery bags either. I buy mostly free flowing fruits and vegetables, and I buy in bulk for most of my dry goods, I put these in my own bags as well. I use very little plastic. I’m very proud of this.