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Target’s plastic bag backdown a loss for the silent majority

Charging for plastic bags at the checkout and even banning disposable plastic bags has been a growing global trend in recent years. So what should we make of the news that retailer Target is binning its…

Customers leaving a Target store in Sydney earlier this year, with some of the biogradable shopping bags that can be bought at the counter. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Charging for plastic bags at the checkout and even banning disposable plastic bags has been a growing global trend in recent years. So what should we make of the news that retailer Target is binning its own ban on plastic bags due to customer complaints?

Does it mean that plastic bags are back in fashion, and that we might see an end to state bans on free disposable bags, such as the one in South Australia? Are shoppers now saying they’re sick of “go green” campaigns? Or has Target simply caved in to a vocal minority?

How “ban the bag” momentum has spread

In 2009, South Australia was the first Australian state and among the first places in the world to bring in a ban on lightweight, checkout-style plastic bags. Retailers who sell or give away particular types of thin, single-use polyethylene polymer plastic bags can potentially be fined.

The South Australian ban doesn’t apply to all bags: those still allowed include heavier department store bags, small bags on a roll for fruit and vegetables, compostable bags and paper bags.

Since 2009, plastic bag bans or reduction schemes have spread to the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, as well as dozens more jurisdictions internationally, as these maps below show.

Global plastic bag reduction initiatives or bans prior to the 2009 South Australian ban. Anne Sharp/Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia

Global plastic bag reduction initiatives or bans - planned and implemented - as of April 2012. Anne Sharp/Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia

In the lead up to the South Australian ban coming into force, in December 2008 Target stores in the state voluntarily stopped handing out plastic bags. Six months later, the retailer declared it was voluntarily going to stop offering customers free plastic bags at all Target and Target Country stores Australia-wide. Instead it would sell compostable bags for 10 cents each, as well as other re-useable bags.

Announcing the national ban in May 2009, Target’s managing director Launa Inman said:

“We all have a role to play in reducing our impact on the environment. One way is to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags in our business. Target stores currently issue over 100 million plastic shopping bags each year to customers and from next Monday this will stop.

“Target has been actively involved for some time in programs to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags, such as the National Packaging Covenant and ‘Say no to plastic bags’ campaign, however we still hand out far too many. So for Target it wasn’t a matter of if we stop issuing plastic shopping bags, it was a matter of when, and the when for Target is now.”

This week, Target was telling a different story. Speaking to news.com.au, Target spokesman Jim Cooper said the decision to stop giving away plastic bags had prompted an average of around 500 formal complaints a year.

“We’ve decided to offer free shopping bags in response to extensive customer concern about being charged for bags in our stores,” Mr Cooper said. “Customers have clearly told us that they do not believe they should be forced to buy a bag.”

But let’s put those 500-odd complaints a year in context. There were 308 Target and Target Country stores in Australia as of the start of this financial year - so it works out to less than two complaints per store, per year.

And when you consider the research showing widespread public acceptance of reducing plastic bags, in this case it appears that this is not simply a case of responding to what customers want.

How do shoppers feel about plastic bag bans?

At the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, we’ve been researching shoppers' attitudes to plastic bags since before the South Australian ban came into force. We have interviewed and observed more than 2000 shoppers to identify the state ban’s effect on their attitudes and behaviour.

Our findings have been surprisingly clear and consistent over time – the vast majority of South Australian shoppers we studied understood and supported the ban, and quickly adjusted to taking their own bags grocery shopping and to paying for bags when they needed them.

Our most recent research on it, published late last year, showed that eight in every 10 shoppers supported the state ban continuing, with approximately half of all shoppers giving 10/10 as their level of support.

Interestingly, there was also majority support amongst shoppers for extending the ban further to include thicker plastic bags. While this extension is not currently on the political agenda, it demonstrates shoppers’ support for Target’s move to charge for biodegradable bags, thereby encouraging customers to bring their own.

Changing habits

Shopping is a habitual and low involvement activity for most of us. It is about as exciting as brushing our teeth, but just as necessary.

While switching from being given shopping bags, to taking our own or paying for some, may have required some initial inconvenience for the first few shopping trips, people quickly adjusted to this new requirement. Taking bags with us has become a normal part of our shopping routine.

The change was also greatly helped by having a sensible reason behind the ban - to reduce visible litter and the number of bags sent to landfill - that people could quickly grasp, and which was supported by a strong communications campaign run by Zero Waste SA, the government agency charged with implementing the ban.

Additionally, shoppers felt their efforts made a difference, with the research identifying that more than eight in 10 shoppers believed the ban was having a positive impact.

Off target?

Target was one of the first non-grocery retailers to bring in a national plastic bag ban policy. Taking such a sustainability lead can mean extra work to explain your actions to customers.

It is understandable that a few shoppers were surprised and even annoyed to not get a free bag when they shopped at Target, as other retailers continued to give away bags for free.

However, rather than using this as an opportunity to tell their story of going above and beyond what was required on the sustainability front, four years on Target has chosen to take a step backwards.

What will happen to the bags Target will now give away for free? The positive is that they will be reused or recycled, at least to some extent.

Target’s free bags will be thicker in states, territories and local council areas that have banned lightweight plastic shopping bags.

Our research found that when people do get thicker plastic bags, they become part of their stockpile of bags that they take shopping in the retail outlets where bags are not given for free. Shoppers are also recycling plastic bags rather than sending them to landfill, but these efforts are still only modest.

As its own annual report says, Target had a disappointing year, with its earnings falling to $136 million in 2012-13, down from $244 million the year before.

So it’s understandable that Target is looking for ways to make its customers happier, starting with its plastic bag policy, which it said attracted more complaints than any other.

But when you consider how many thousands of people shop at Target’s 308 stores each day, 500-odd complaints across the whole country in a year does seem like a small number to trigger this change of policy.

Instead, Target appears to be responding to a very small but vocal minority - ignoring the silent majority, who have shown they are “100% Happy” with paying for biodegradable bags or bringing their own.