Bringing your own bag might change the way you shop

string shopping bag
CC BY-NC 2.0 Jonasek22

Harvard researchers find that people who bring their own bags shop differently. By analyzing the grocery receipts from shoppers in California, Uma Karmarkar and Bryan Bollinger found that when people bring their own reusable shopping bags, they’re more likely to buy organic items. But they’re also more likely to grab a high-calorie treat, like cookies or ice cream. As Grist’s Eve Andrews observes, “A reusable bag can make your groceries a little greener and more delicious!”

The findings haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Karmarkar was recently interviewed by Harvard Business Review. While it’s not so surprising that bringing a bag correlates with a preference for organic foods, it’s more surprising to see that its also associated with an indulgence. “You give yourself a cookie. In this case literally,” said Karmarkar. “In consumer psychology the word “licensing” is the key. If I behave well in one situation, I give myself license to misbehave in another, unrelated situation. Similar research has also been done on health decisions. I get a Diet Coke; I treat myself to a hamburger.”

I’ve definitely gone to the grocery store and topped my cloth shopping bag full of organic produce with a box of Mochi ice cream or a package of (organic!) chocolate peanut butter cups. But it’s not as simple as dividing the reusable bag/organic shoppers from the plastic bag/non-organic shoppers.

The data showed in some cases that the same shopper made different choices when they brought a bag and when they didn’t. It seems that the act of bringing a bag might be reminding shoppers to buy more sustainable items. “One green action led to another,” said Karmarkar.

Karmarkar speculates that as reusable bags become more common, either through disposable bag bans or as a cultural norm, their association with giving yourself a treat will disappear.

Bringing your own bag might change the way you shop
Harvard researchers find that people shop differently when they bring their own bags.

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