Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Reusables: The Big Lie

Nobody loves reusables more than The Green Miles. Toting my reusable coffee mug all over the country. Bringing my reusable grocery bag to Harris Teeter.

But from businesses to environmentalists, there's a Big Lie that people seem to be buying into. The Big Lie is that giving a discount of five or ten cents on your grocery bill or on a cup of coffee will get people to use reusables.

Allow me to detail exactly how many people will change their behavior based on a five or ten cent discount: No one.

Let me repeat that in big bold letters: No one.

Let's take Starbucks as an example. Buy a stainless steel desktop mug for $18.95, and with their 10 cent discount for bringing your own mug, you'll recoup your investment in just 190 cups of coffee! Talk about a lousy return on investment. And that's assuming you don't lose track of the mug by then.

Of course people will use reusables for other reasons, and that discount does help reinforce that behavior. But most people won't bend over to pick up a dime on the street, never mind change their routine because of one.

Why does The Big Lie live on? Because no one wants to discourage stores from doing what they can to promote reusables, so environmentalists feel like they have to take what they can get.

There's only one way to really incentivize reusables, and that's by ending the practice of giving away disposable containers. If you charged 25 cents per bag or per cup, you'd see behaviors change in a hurry. That 25 cents could then go to litter cleanup or recycling efforts. Right now, if someone doesn't properly dispose of their disposable, you pay for its cleanup through your tax dollars.

What's stopping that? No one wants to be the first, or worse yet, the only. Just take a look at British supermarket chain Sainsbury's, which tried to charge for bags:

We did a 'pay-for' trial some years ago where we did charge the cost price for carrier bags to our customers, but our customers where not happy and complained. From these trials we decided to stop charging our customers for carrier bags and fall in line with other retailers.
But a recent JD Power study reported reusables present a strong branding opportunity:

Nearly 45 percent of upscale store customers and 30 percent of midscale customers say that they would like their department store to offer a designer shopping bag that is reusable, which presents an opportunity for stores to provide an environmentally friendly offering. Shoppers 40 years and younger tend to be more interested in reusable shopping bags, compared with their older counterparts.
The bottom line? There are plenty of ways to promote reusables -- environmental education efforts, giveaways of reusables, and financial incentives with teeth. But as Yogi Berra once said, a nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.
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