Do Reusable Grocery Bags Cause You To Behave Badly?

That eco-friendly bag doesn’t always lead to virtuous behavior. Find out more.

Do we tend to indulge ourselves with treats when we feel that we’ve done the right thing?

That’s the question two marketing professors recently set out to answer, the current issue of the Harvard Business Review reports.

So Uma Karmarkar of the Harvard Business School and Bryan Bollinger of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business analyzed the grocery bills of thousands of California shoppers based on data from store loyalty cards.

The researchers noted which receipts indicated shoppers received a discount for bringing in reusable bags.

The researchers then found that shopping choices differed from shopping trip to shopping trip based on whether the shopper had a reusable bag, Karmarkar told Harvard Business Review.

The difference was “clear,” he says. Shoppers who brought their own bags were more likely to fill them with organic food instead of non-organic versions.

“So one green action led to another,” as Karmarkar puts it.

The same shoppers, however, were more likely to buy junk food like ice cream, chips, candy bars and cookies.

“They weren’t replacing other items with junk food, as they did with organic food,” Karmarkar explains. “They were just adding it to their carts.”

Consumer psychologists call this “licensing.” While it might happen on a subconscious level, the thinking is that by behaving responsibly in one situation — such as bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store — shoppers “license” themselves to misbehave in another situation, such as adding junk food to their bag.

Meanwhile, disposable-bag bans and fees are catching on.

Last week, Encinitas, Calif., started enforcing a ban on single-use plastic bags that the city approved last year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Shoppers who forget to bring a reusable bag can buy a paper bag for 10 cents or buy a reusable bag for whatever a store charges, the newspaper reports.

The ban applies to grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor shops, mini-markets and discount retailers like Wal-Mart that sell groceries. On Oct. 10, it will be expanded to hardware stores, clothing stores and farmers markets.

The city of Portland, Maine, is also working on an ordinance that would establish a fee for the use of a plastic bag, the local ABC affiliate reports.

What kind of bag do you shop with? Do you think it affects what you buy? Let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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