Environment-friendly canvas grocery bags have a surprising influence over what products people buy, according to researchers from Harvard Business School (HBS). Not only do reusable bag shoppers choose more organic and environmentally friendly items, but they also buy more indulgent foods, such as cookies and ice cream, compared to other shoppers.
The study suggests that reusable bags encourage shoppers to consciously consider buying environmentally responsible and organic products, but also trigger what’s called a “licensing effect,” when people reward themselves for having taken a positive or noble action.
The researchers, Uma R. Karmarkar, Ph.D., assistant professor of business administration at HBS, and Bryan Bollinger, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, were surprised to find that the influential effects linked to reusable bags were not causal, but seemed to worked in tandem, pushing shoppers in seemingly opposite directions at the same time.
“We thought that it was possible … that bringing your own bag might encourage you to buy more organic or environmentally friendly items. I think the interesting part is that, in addition, you are also doing something that seems on the surface of it to be inconsistent, that you’re sort of being good in one domain and allowing yourself to be a little bit bad in another,” she said.
“It seems like the bag is ground zero for both effects. Both things are happening due to some element of bringing that bag.”
The purpose of the study was to determine which psychological factors drive purchasing decisions. Survey participants reported how they thought bringing their own bag might affect their shopping decisions; researchers looked at how bringing reusable bags influenced shoppers’ willingness to buy organic and indulgent treats when presented with both options at the same time; and finally, researchers examined how price might affect these purchases.
“The thing we can’t be sure of is whether they’re actually buying more organic items or whether they’re choosing the organic options [for products] that they might have considered. What the experiments do show is that they’re willing to pay more for organic items and for indulgent ones,” said Karmarkar.
Researchers also found that when stores require reusable bags or “punish” shoppers who don’t bring their own by charging for bags that were once free, the power of reusable bags to influence spending on treats weakens.
“If you have a store that has a policy that it only uses reusable bags, then bringing a bag isn’t you choosing to do something good, it’s you meeting the rules and expectations of the store, which means the cookie goes to the store,” said Karmarkar. “The bag no longer represents something that you did proactively that was positive.”
Source: Harvard University