From Bags for Life (2014) to Single Use Plastics (2020)

Danielle Tucker, 25th September 2020

What we learnt from bags for life

Photo by Daniel Romero on unsplash

In our 2014 article in Journal of Business Ethics we explored the introduction and uptake of ‘Bags for Life’ in UK supermarkets as an example of embedding ethical consumerism. In this research we found that both individuals and institutions played a significant interactive role in reducing the gap between positive attitudes about being an ethically conscious consumer and the practice of making more sustainable choices. Since then public awareness about single use plastic has increased and recent data from Defra, published in July shows that the distribution of single use plastic bags is down 95% since the government’s 5p charge was brought in. This means that on average, one person is buying four bags compared to 2014.

One thing that came through really strongly in that research was that a lot of people had the drive to be more ethically conscious – they wanted to use less plastic bags, but until the 5p bag tax, they lacked those mechanisms to nudge that intention into actual behaviour change.

From needing the nudge to proactive problem solving

In 2020 we reached a point where there was sufficient development to warrant revisiting this work – we were optimistic that new behaviours and dynamics could have emerged, and we wanted to go back and look differently at ethical consumerism. A design thinking approach is about trying to understand the user experience. In this case, we were keen to understanding the household experience.

We have been encouraged by how proactive members of the public are to what they see as ethical practices. For example at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when councils were struggling with reduced workforce and stopped doing some of their recycling and green waste collection. Rather than giving up on recycling in their homes, we saw that people were complaining bitterly to their councils. Faced with that, we also saw an uptake in people looking into home composting – this is an example of people proactively finding solutions where the institution of the council has taken away that recycling service, they went out and tried to find an alternative solution to allow them to keep up those practices.

Examples like these are indicative that there has been a shift since our bags for life work back in 2014, where it was really the institutional initiatives that were prompting people. Now we see people assuming a bit more responsibility in themselves to find a different solution or to think outside the box.

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