by Eric Samuels

As I was about to complete payment at the self-checkout of my local supermarket, a screen appeared asking ‘how many bags would you like?’ – with a new piece of information, they would now cost 5c each! I tapped NONE, completed payment, grabbed my reusable grocery bags and was on my way.

As I loaded up my car, it dawned on me, just how recently my behaviour towards cloth grocery bags had changed.

Now I admit to not being a leading-edge environmental activist, nor am I at the other end of the scale, tossing discarded burger wrappers, lit cigarette butts and whatever else I’m done with, out the window of my moving vehicle. Like most people, I exist somewhere in-between; hopefully a lot closer to the environmentalist than the Vile Vehicular Vermin (Litterbug is too cute a moniker). So, I consider my behavioural transition to be pretty consistent with the masses.

At first, I was certainly conscious of the effort being put forth by supermarkets and environmental groups to change my behaviour. I picked up a free promotional bag or two, but on the rare occasions that I did use them, I invariably left them in my house, or when shopping, I often forgot them in the car and, well, it was raining, so I’d use them next time!

For a time, I began to rationalize my behaviour: plastic grocery bags were the perfect size to line the garbage bin in my kitchen. So the bags were being put to good use!

But a few things changed my behaviour, and it’s worth recognizing what they were, because we don’t always change as a result of logical or even rational reasons. Nor do we always do what’s in our own best interest.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that the first trigger was a pun; and while I normally despise puns, this was clever enough to not only catch my attention, but modify my behaviour. I’m sure you’ve seen it, a black cloth bag, with the message “This Bag Is Green.” Clever. I bought one. It was more about what this bag said about me, than saving carbon emissions, but the die was cast.

The next wave was a further lesson in branding. Once a month, or so, I cross the border into Washington State (it’s only a few minutes from my home, in British Columbia) and shop at an absolutely wonderful supermarket chain called Trader Joe’s. If you shop there, you know I need not say more, but if you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting a TJ’s, let me just say that Trader Joe’s is not only a remarkable retail story with exceptional quality and variety, but to many of its customers, it’s a lifestyle statement. Over a few visits, I picked up several reusable Trader Joe’s branded grocery bags. When I use them in my local supermarket, I’m amazed at how many comments I receive, regarding my vanity bags.

I am reminded of living in Toronto back in 2001. There were two diametrically opposed supermarkets on the same block. One was a No Frills grocery store, where everything was about low prices. At the other end of the block was Pusateri’s, a market so high-end, they offered valet parking….seriously!

Now, I will admit that Pusateri’s had an extraordinary prepared food section and some truly outstanding products, but the fact is, a lot of the clientele who arrived in Lexus’ and Mercedes, picked up their deli items at Pusateri’s, then snuck down the street, to get their tissue paper and canned goods at the No-Name store. Know how you could tell? At the risk of appearing cynical, they were easy to spot, as they often brought their own plastic bags to help in the recycling effort. Curiously, they were almost always Pusateri’s plastic bags seen leaving the No Frills supermarket.

Truth is, as progressive as we might like to believe we are, each of us has to reach our own tipping point to assimilate new behaviour. That point is often mitigated by subtle, yet powerful, social factors.

Marketing Guru/Psychologist Robert Cialdini touched on a similar scenario in a series of experiments involving hotel room towels. His research revealed that ‘helping the environment,’ was a moderately effective motivator in getting hotel guests to reuse towels. But when the message was more personalized to focus on the responsibility of the individual guest, as compared to other guests who had stayed in the same room, towel reuse increased substantially.

We don’t always do what’s right, for the right reasons. Take quitting smoking. I smoked for more years than I care to admit, but when I did quit, more than 20 years ago, my motivation was not the logical rationale of improved health. No, that was too non-specific and frankly, not enough to counter the powerful addiction. I needed a much more tangible and powerful motivator to trick myself past the effects of nicotine withdrawal. So, I calculated my annual expenditure on cigarettes and went shopping for something extravagant that I could buy with a year’s smoking budget. Whenever I got the urge, I thought about the reward. Oh, and for the really bad cravings, I followed a friend’s advise and imagined myself licking a dirty ashtray!

The longer we live, the more ingrained our behaviour becomes. It’s perfectly natural. So, when we decide to change something about ourselves, whether it’s improving eating habits, spending more time with family, or smiling more often at strangers, remember that what may seem like the most efficient path to success may not be the most effective.

Perhaps more importantly is timing. I didn’t actually quit smoking until the 5th or 6th attempt. We change when the motivation is right, whatever that may be. I am reminded of the Zen proverb “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

***While writing this article, I was quite aware of the ongoing argument as to the true environmental benefit of recycled grocery bags VS plastic, in terms of actual cost, carbon footprint, etc. I chose to avoid the topic, as it is contentious (to say the least), and I thought my outing Pusateri’s customers in Toronto, was enough potential controversy for one day.

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