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.


Googla Monster said...

Yes, there definitely needs to be a fresh approach to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags (or other carrying containers). One reason I love using the self-check line at the Harris Teeter at Pentagon Row is that I get to "bag" my own groceries. That is to say, most of my purchases go into my rolling backpack unbagged. The recording directs me to put my purchase in a bag, but I set them on the bag platform. Some types of items that are wet I do put in the provided bags; however, I do reuse those bags for trash. When I go to a regular checkout I just give up and let the checkout people bag my groceries because it's so hard to communicate that I want to bag them myself.

Charles said...

We bought Giant grocery bags years ago, and use them often.

But we also take plastic bags, which we either recycle back to the store, or use around the house in place of purchasing other bags.

I use them for wet clothes, for trash, for protecting things from the damp.

The best friend of the environment is an educated consumer. You can try to force people through monetary costs, or entice them with monetary incentives.

But if you can change their attitude, they will do what is right because they want to.

Remember the Aesop's Fable of the Sun and the Wind.

When you have to use government to force people to take action that seems self-evidently good, it means you've done a poor job of explaining things.

And the more we use government to force people to do things against their will, the more people will think negatively of environmentalism, will resent our meddling, and rebel against what we are pushing.

You do the right thing because it's the right thing. Why? Do you think you are especially enlightened? Maybe so, but more likely you just read the right books and came to a logical conclusion. That's what I did. If you and I can figure it out, there's no reason everybody can't.

Anonymous said...

Ikea charges for bags, remember!

Anonymous said...

I lived in a developing country for three years and often packages were wrapped in kraft paper or consumers brough reusable baskets. Habits.

I favor government action in the U.S. to require that #1 all retail stores to sell reusable bags and containers, and #2 to charge a heavy sales tax on every disposable bag sold of $1 per bag.

I'm tired of "voluntary" environmental compliance. We live in a capitalist country--if it's costs money, it will be done.

Similarly, whatever happened to deposits on bottles and cans in Virginia? In the 1950s in the U.S., a 8-ounce Coke cost 5 cents, and the deposit on the sturdy glass bottle was also 5 cents.

Today, a 50 cent per bottle deposit would end the problem of bottle litter.

Recycled aluminium saves 90% of the electricity used to make the can

Googla Monster said...

Let's start with Arlington Country which advertises itself as being green. There is way to much wasteful packaging in Shirlington (where I live). The magnicent Harris Teeter is due to open next Wednesday. I would like to see Arlington County partner with HT to be a flagship of environmentally preferable products. Example, instead of using those horrible plastic takeaway containers for the salad bar, they should use the type that whole foods has. This would be a WIN-WIN for all (reasonable) parties.