It’s time to admit that plastic bag fees aren’t actually working: Peter Shawn Taylor

Feel-good business trends often seem unstoppable—until they run up against real life and collapse

 
Plastic bag

(Steve Gallagher/Cultura/Getty)

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s first really big idea was his 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point. Like viruses, he argued, ideas, trends and fashions could quickly become contagious through tiny, almost imperceptible changes in the status quo. “Little things can make a big difference,” he argued.

It’s a great insight. But does it work in reverse? Can overwhelmingly dominant ideas or trends rapidly disappear in a way no one even notices? You’ll find the answer at the checkout.

Recall that back in 2009 hysteria about plastic shopping bags reached fever pitch. In true infectious style, everyone suddenly became convinced single-use retail bags were a scourge on the environment and evidence our consumer lifestyle was out of control.

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In June 2009, as a response to widespread calls for bans or other anti-bag measures from environmental groups, the city of Toronto required that all local stores charge 5¢ for every plastic bag they handed out. This in turn prompted many national chain stores—Indigo, Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws among them—to announce with great fanfare they were voluntarily extending Toronto’s 5¢ fee to all stores nationwide. In Gladwell’s parlance, plastic-bag fees had tipped.

For a short time this proved to be a dream issue for retailers: the chance to turn a profit on something formerly considered an expense, all the while wrapping oneself in environmental virtue.

As a practical matter, however, banning or charging for bags never made much sense. Their contribution to urban waste is negligible: a recent Toronto street-litter survey found plastic retail bags constitute less than 1% of total garbage. Most customers reused their free bags for pet waste or something else. And most important, bags have the practical purpose of getting your groceries home safely. While everyone dutifully schlepped cloth bags around to save the fee, this simply added to the hassle of shopping.

Fast-forward five years and plastic bag fees are in full retreat. Toronto has undone its bylaw; and many of the leading bag-fee proponents have gone back to handing out free bags—although they seem to have skipped the fanfare this time around.

“We phased out the charge last year,” an Indigo rep told me via e-mail, adding “a large factor in our decision was customer feedback.” Home Depot no longer charges for bags either. Loblaws quietly dropped its fee in Atlantic Canada once it discovered its competitor was giving away bags for free. And personal experience at Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobeys suggests many cashiers have simply given up on the bag fee regardless of corporate policy. “I don’t charge for bags if I like you,” one cashier told me conspiratorially.

Some stores still charge for bags. Others have banned them. But by and large, free bags are back, because customers never really liked the policy in the first place. The bag-fee movement—driven by environmental crusaders and corporate group-think—un-tipped because it conflicted with the primacy of consumer preferences.

A lot of social and environmental causes fit this pattern. Consider the demonization of individual water bottles, a move that predates the plastic-bag fee. Despite a massive push among universities, municipal governments and other institutions to ban the flimsy plastic containers and force everyone to drink tap water, their popularity continues unabated. It’s actually one of the few beverage sectors to show sustained growth over the past five years. People like bottled water and find it convenient, regardless of what their betters have to say. Other current fixations seem equally ready for their un-tipping point: gender targets on corporate boards, anti-GMO food complaints, green energy-subsidies, and social licences for mining companies.

Businesses caught up in do-right crazes like the bag fee will inevitably (and embarrassingly) find themselves offside with customers once the fad proves bogus. Smart companies will heed that lesson, and tread carefully.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues

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