Why Target’s Plastic Bag Backdown Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Why Target’s Plastic Bag Backdown Doesn’t Make Much Sense

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?

Picture: mattinbgn

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.

Why Target’s Plastic Bag Backdown Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Global plastic bag reduction initiatives or bans — planned and implemented — as of April 2012.

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.

Rosemary Anne Sharp is Senior Researcher Sustainability, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at University of South Australia. She received funding from Zero Waste SA, a South Australian government agency, in order to conduct this independent research. The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • Sure, don’t use plastic bags, good idea. But don’t expect me to pay for a plastic bag to carry all this shit I just gave you money for, out of the store. The least you can do, after spending god knows how much money, is give me something to carry this stuff in.

    I’ve been a part of the “silent” majority/minority that hated this policy. To the extent that I avoid Target for shopping because it infuriates me how arrogant they are asking if I’d like to pay for a plastic bag.

    Next up, Dan Murphy’s and Bunnings can get their shit in order. FFS If I walk up with a basket full of bottles, yeah I want something to fucking carry them in when I leave the store. Assholes.

    • Agreed.

      Although at least with Bunnings they offer a free empty box for you to carry your stuff in (when they actually have a supply of them).

    • Agreed – I started avoiding Target because of this. If people want to part-take in whatever eco-gestures make them feel better, go for it. When it becomes mandatory its a different story.
      If plastic bags really are so evil, they shouldn’t offer them at all. Since they still offer them for a token price, its nothing more than a modern take on the indulgence.

      • The bags offered at a token price are not plastic, they are bio-degradeable. so it has a double whammy effect. First, to save money, you don’t get a bag unless you absolutely need to and second, if you do buy the bag (for 10c or 20c – peanuts really), it won’t be as bad for the environment because they start degrading after 7 days if kept in water.

    • Agreed.

      Also.. isn’t Target a part of a larger conglomerate? That is, Wesfarmers?

      KMart is part of Wesfarmers.. but they give out plastic bags still, Coles is part of Wesfarmers.. but they give out plastic bags still.

      Why are they stopping it for only a single part of their chain.. the amount of plastic bags they go through in a single Coles store is going to outweigh the amount they save in, my estimate, 5 or more Target stores.

    • Wow Cameron, couldn’t have said it any better myself!!!. I am disappointed however that now they are free they don’t look like the compostable ones, just PLASTIC, pity.

  • The technology now exists to make plastic bags bio-degradable. I know it works because I buy bio-degradable bin bags and they do degrade if left in the open for a week or so. So… Why the hell aren’t they using Bio bags…? Oh… just so you know, they don’t degrade if left wrapped up in the roll, or at least it takes a long time, so that’s not an issue either…!

    • In Tasmania, Woolworths have had advertising about a bag ban coming in. It specifically bans bio-degradable bags too. WTF?

      • I think the biodegradable bag issue has something to do with people trying to recycle them along with the normal plastic bags, which corrupts the recycling stream because it’s considered a contaminant in that process.

        • Not sure how they did the science on that, the bags I have pretty much turn to dust after awhile, and that can’t be any worse than some of the other nasty crap that gets dumped. Plus as mentioned by others here, even if you pay for the bags they still end up in the land fill. Seems to me Bio bags are the best way to go all round… 🙂

      • Yeah, but not all, in fact very few and it should be a mandated law to use them in all stores. Well that’s my opinion anyway.. 🙂

  • I shop at target all the time and can honestly say this has had no impact on me at all.. I either need a bag and shell out 10c (if you’re going shopping without 10c to spare, perhaps reconsider your need to spend anything), or I have my backpack and chuck them in there..

    I wont lie, it didn’t hurt them either that the bags you buy are actually quite nice 😀

  • Target bags in the US are some of the best plastic bags around really tough and great for a second use as a garbage bag. Not sure of the Aussie ones. Maybe that’s what the complaints were about that people missed the good quality plastic bags so they can reuse them

  • So how has Aldi gotten away with it all these years? Everybody just nicks their boxes, which probably also helps them deal with having to deal with packaging waste, although obviously this looks messy. Costco too, doesn’t provide any form of plastic bag to speak of. Again, boxes. Bunnings too, sometimes have boxes but they’re usually pretty hit and miss in regards to availability. Dan Murphy’s? paper bags for one or two bottles, boxes for more.

    I really don’t see what the fuss is, except that Target just couldn’t get its shit together.

    • Yep, this. I remember when Franklins was still around the ol’ box-cage at the front of the store was a common fixture. Customers would fish out whatever sized box they wanted, pack their groceries in those and leave with nary a bag in sight.

      Boxes! Also, once you get in the habit it’s not that hard to remember your reusable bags, incl. special-purpose ones like insulated bags and bottle bags.

      • I always bring bags when I go shopping, but I always wind up buying more than I had originally expected so I usually come up short. Bl**dy marketers.

        I should probably just habitually double the number of bags I bring.

  • I think I have spent about $50 on woolies bags cause I don’t want to have to carry a bag with me all the time on the off chance I might want to drop in to woolies on the way home from work. I think it is a joke cause I am just going to throw out the crazy amount of bags I have collected over the last year or so. So yeah, charging me for something that I am going to dispose of the same way as the old ones is crap.

  • My collection of ‘green’ shopping bags grew to a silly proportion and I had to throw some of them out, if you store then in any other way, some the plastic inserts that keeps them flat have broken or in one that I had hidden back in a cupboard had disintergrated.
    The ban on plastic bags in some stores have changed my thinking – and I will often refuse another bag when I can put it in with something else. One occasion a Target linked store ran out of 10 cents bags, and offered me one for a 1.00 instead. The nature of my purchases were they were very fragile/ and small and carrying it around without protection would have damaged the goods and I thought 1.00 was an unreasonable amount to pay just so I could leave the store with my purchase, so I went elswhere.

    • Thats quite odd.

      I had one of those cases before and the checkout person said their manager was allowing them to give out the more expensive bags for 20c, while I still had to pay more for a bag, it was a good move seeing as how it was a Target issue that they didn’t have any 10c bags.

  • Target is just an over-priced Kmart. Go shop in Kmart where the products are much the same brand and quality, cheaper in price and the shopping bags are FREE.

    Now for Aldi to follow suit and stop charging for their bags. Aldi provide no customer service, the very least they could do is make the bags free.

  • Id happily pay the money for a biodegradable bag at Target, but the ones they had stunk like cat pee, I couldn’t bare having one anywhere near me!

  • Everybody complains about those reusable bags. I’ve used the same set of 3 (pair of large ones and a smaller one) for about 6 years. The flat piece of plastic is a) redundant and b) quite sturdy if you fold the bag properly.

    I keep the small one in my work bag so I can do the random impulse shopping on the way home from work…

    All I see from the comments are people who cant be bothered to think ahead of time…

    • So what do you use for garbage bin bags? Because i just recycle the plastic bags that i buy my groceries in..

  • Plastic bags cost less than a cent but sell for 10 cents = Excellent profit.
    ‘Green’ bags cost 10 cents and sell for $1 = Excellent profit.
    Nothing else matches the profit margin.
    It’s nothing to do with saving the planet and everything to do with obscene profits.

  • Who ever wrote this article needs to learn more about customer service.

    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.

    Most people don’t complain. Have you ever actually gone to the effort to fill out a form?
    I like many others just avoided Target.

    I know I should carry those re-usable bags around with me. But I forget and don’t like being punished for it. Its the same with most people who can’t be bothered bringing their re-usable bags can’t be bothered filling out a complaint form.

    Target most likely spoke to their staff who get bitched at when they have to charge for it.

  • Google “plastic bag myths” for some fun!
    In one country banning plastic bags increased the overall use of plastic bags.
    The law of Unintended Consequences.
    Environmentalists can kiss my shiny Futurama quote!
    In political terms one vocal complaint is worth about a thousand silent ones.
    And what people say in surveys is often what they think others want them to say.
    No plastic bags – no custom.
    Simple really!

    • @ronvanwegan

      As has been stated in the article, the research of thousands of people have shown the vast majority not only support the banning of plastic bags – but even further reductions than are currently happening. The infographic also shows clearly that this is an issue that is becoming more common and more relevant.

      Where is your research on “what people say in surveys is often what they think others want them to say.?” and “in political terms one vocal complaint is worth about a thousand silent ones.”?

      Or are you just talking out of your ass?

  • Yes, there are so many self-indulgent 21st century people who think they should be able to have anything anytime they want. Frankly, I don’t see why you cannot plan ahead. It’s really not that hard. My grandmother used to do it all the time, back in the day when there were no plastic bags. I do it too. And if I drop in for a quick purchase of something small, I don’t take a bag. That’s what I have hands for.

    I make sure I have reusable bags with me when I go shopping. In just 2 bags you can carry as much groceries, as you can in about 6 plastic bags. Also, the bags from Woollies are now too thin and too small to be used as liners for the kitchen bin. By the time you get home with your shopping there’s inevitably a hole in them, and they don’t quite go around the edges of a standard bin anymore.

  • Agree completely. Some of the comments on here are astoundingly stupid, along the lines of “how dare they charge me for a bag that I’m going to throw out anyway”… That’s the whole point!

    As for bin liners, I’ve given up on the kitchen bins entirely – dirty, smelly things, and that’s assuming the bin liner works and you have your rubbish in it for a couple of days. If the liner splits or leaks, you’ve got a mess to wash up.

    I just get one of said plastic bags from Coles or Woolies and hang it off of a kitchen cupboard handle each morning, then fill it throughout the day with my egg shells, tea bags, tissue, carrot peelings and other crap (making sure to empty the juices into the sink), then last thing at night as I’m turning the lights out, I dump the bag in the wheely bin outside. The kitchen never has dirty bin smell, and I usually have about enough bags to get me through till the next shopping run 🙂

  • All I want to say is…

    Hooray, and about bloody time! I too was avoiding shopping at Target for this reason, though if I had to go there I’d nick a bag from the Woolies checkout on the way past first and use that!

  • I am sick of this plastic bag debate.
    Why do I never hear?
    I purchased a white dress for my daughter and they wanted to charge me for a plastic bag.
    I do not want a plastic bag give me a PAPER BAG. I am sure if a whale swallows a plastic bag
    It would help it to know that I paid 10c for it. What a load of crap. I’ll say it again. PAPER BAG.

    • For groceries, paper bags don’t necessarily work well because moisture/condensation can wet the bag and cause it to break. Yes, you can coat the plastic (Edit: coat the *paper*), but then you just have a fancy plastic bag. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything that Target stock that would be an issue in that respect.

      Otherwise, I tend to agree… I keep wondering why we don’t ramp up paper production (from farmed lumber) as paper is a carbon sink (if the energy used for manufacture is green, of course.)

  • Flip it around: Reward customers who “go green” or “plan ahead” and don’t need bags by giving a small discount (10c to $1). Don’t “penalise” or inconvenience other customers who want a bag. Factor it into your prices.

  • Taking the number of formal complaints and suggesting that is the totality of negative opinion is floggy behaviour.

    You use the number of formal complaints as a comparative indicator of general satisfaction/dissatisfaction of customers to a policy. Most people who aren’t happy aren’t going to bother making a formal complaint but if Policy A generates 10 complaints and Policy B generates 500, Policy B probably causes more silent dissatisfied customers than Policy A.

    You obviously need to delve deeper but so does the author if they want to say anything of value.

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