Harvard Researchers Find Reusable Grocery Bags Influence Our Choices
According to researchers from Harvard Business School (HBS), environmentally friendly reusable bags have a surprising influence on what products shopper buy.
Shoppers bringing reusable bags are more likely not only to load up on organic and “green” goods than those who use the free paper or plastic bags provided by the store, but also are more likely to spend more on indulgent, not-so-healthy foods such as ice cream, cookies, and chips, according to Uma R. Karmarkar, assistant professor of business administration at HBS, and Bryan Bollinger, assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, who co-authored the HBS working paper.
Encouraging shoppers to consciously consider buying environmentally responsible and organic products, the study suggests that reusable bags encourage this but also trigger what is called a “licensing effect”. This “licensing effect” is when people reward themselves for having taken a positive or noble action. The researchers were surprised to find that the influential effects linked to reusable bags were not casual, but seemed to work in tandem, leading shoppers in apparently opposite directions all at the same time.
“We thought 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. 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 charge for paper or plastic bags when shoppers don’t bring their own, 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.”