Why Australia’s Plastic Bag ‘Ban’ Triggered A Shopper Mutiny

Why Australia’s Plastic Bag ‘Ban’ Triggered A Shopper Mutiny
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Woolworths’ and Coles’ bans on plastic bags have been applauded by environmental groups, but were reportedly met with abuse and assault and claims of profiteering. This reaction is due to supermarkets breaching their “psychological contract” with customers – and when both major supermarkets appeared to back flip in the face of irate customers it only compounded the problem”.

Unlike written legal contracts, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

These understandings are often tacit or implicit. They tend to be invisible, assumed, unspoken, informal or at best only partially vocalised.

The pre-ban psychological contract between supermarket and shopper was something like “I’ll shop with you and, in exchange, you’ll pack my purchases into a free plastic bag.”

There was an implicit financial exchange between parties. Shoppers spent money on groceries and the supermarket paid for providing a plastic bag.

With the bag ban the psychological contract changed: “I’ll shop with you and give up a plastic bag, you’ll also give up plastic in the store in other areas, and the environment will benefit.”

Supermarkets justified phasing out lightweight plastic bags with the idea of a corporate social responsibility strategy. Customers might have been glad to forgo single-use plastic bans to support a greener future, but this is where the problem occurred.

Shoppers began to realise that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost (paying 15 cents or more, depending on the type of re-usable bag).

The supermarkets had not kept up their end of the psychological contract by reducing the use of plastic in the store, particularly in packaging. The social media comments largely reflect this.

When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.

This can range from mild, such as venting on social media, to acts of sabotage like altering floor stock and stealing shopping baskets.

Compounding factors

A couple of other factors have compounded the perceived breach of contract.

Unlike smaller states and territories (South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the ACT) where state legislation has banned single-use plastic bags by all retailers, this was a retailer-imposed national ban.

Shoppers in these smaller states quickly became accustomed to not having free bags, as these were not available anywhere.

By simply backflipping soon after implementing the policy, the supermarkets also prompted shoppers to question their intentions and integrity.

While shoppers may have at first accepted the rationale for the ban, extended free bag periods sent the message that the supermarkets are not that serious about banning plastic bags for environmental reasons.

While Woolworths has said it will channel “money made” from selling its “Bag for Good” scheme into a youth environmental scheme, customers also rightly question the cost savings and revenues generated.

Removing a single-use plastic bag is a positive first step, but it is only the beginning. Customers still walk in to supermarkets today and see many varieties of food wrapped in plastic, and they themselves place loose fruit and vegetables into plastic bags.

As a result of media coverage, customers are now more aware and sensitive of plastics throughout dry grocery departments. They see more and more unnecessary plastic packaging, like dry pasta in a box with a clear plastic window.

Fixing the plastic bag ban

There is certainly enough evidence that removing single-use bags leads to positive environmental outcomes. But a national, uniform approach is needed, supported by consumer awareness and education programs.

While many state and territory governments have legislated plastic bag bans, others have held out. The Victorian government last year announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags, but despite widespread consumer support, it is yet to come into effect.

Supermarkets need to be open about the financial aspects of plastic bags, both costs and revenues.

Consumers may understand the procurement and logistics costs of the replacement plastic bag options will be higher – because the bags are thicker and heavier, and it takes extra time to pack different-sized bag options.

The distribution of net profits (not gross profits) from the sale of all re-usable bag options should be channelled into sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes. Programs need to be benchmarked, measured and publicly announced.

Shoppers will be more accepting of change if they can comprehend how their small sacrifice (say 15 cents) is helping the environment.

Shoppers also have an important role to play in the scheme of things. While it will take some time to break old habits, responsibility rests with shoppers to remember to bring a bag. If they forget, they simply need to buy another one.

The ConversationUltimately, the psychological contract needs to once again be aligned and in balance. To do this governments, retailers and consumers need to work together to solve this important environmental issue.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Social Marketing Professor, School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation..


  • Why should the money made from the sale of plastic bags go into “sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes.” ? … I’d rather have the money used to lower grocery prices across the board. Apart from rent/mortgage, grocery costs are a household’s biggest expenditure – so surely a saving in this area, by the supermarket themselves, would certainly go a long way to gaining the customers’ trust back.

      • Yes you are, no matter how many times you re-use the bag if they charge for it you always have a cost. It’s just diminished the more you use it. Use it 15 times and it’s 1c per use, 150 times and it’s .1c per use, but it’s never zero.

        That said, the cost is pretty negligible even if you only use the bags once or twice. However, I think that’s also where the problem kicks in. The big supermarkets are regularly posting profits – Woolworths posted a 1.5 billion profit last year, Coles 1.6 billion. So the customers see that and think they’re squeezing every possible cent when they could be giving them away for free. Again, it’s a psychological thing.

        I think the ideal approach for the shops would have been to announce the upcoming ban and a month (or so) out start giving away the 15c reusable bags to shoppers for free. And if you’re a rewards member you get some (4 or 5) of the heavier cloth reusable bags for free. That way shoppers are “armed” with their reusable bags in advance and they haven’t paid for them. That buys a lot of good will for the sake of only a few dollars to the supermarkets.

        WW are taking a good approach at the moment, you earn bonus shopper points when you bring your own reusable bags. So you’re effectively earning money by doing the right thing.

        Of course, there’s nothing to say that behind the scenes they bump the cost of groceries for a week or two and cover that invisibly. But at least most shoppers don’t see that and they’d be happy.

  • I was very surprised to see on the bottom of the Coles 15¢ bag that it said “Made in Malaysia”. Surely these could be sourced locally for less than 15¢ – by bringing them from offshore is only compounding the issue that it’s a revenue raising concern, rather than cost recovery.

  • This is what pisses me off, the “green” people are happy because the big boy supermarkets are making a green change. First of all, they aren’t single use plastic bags. I dont know one person who just chucks these bags away after getting home from the supermarket. Secondly, dont for one minute think either of the big supermarkets are doing this for green reasons, they are making MILLIONS on selling customers a very similar plastic bad (OR a mesh bad) that they use to provide for free. All i see is people making more money with little to no actual improvement to our environment

    • I dont know one person who just chucks these bags away after getting home from the supermarket
      Wow, I didn’t know such comprehensive research had been done. That changes everything.

      All i see is people making more money with little to no actual improvement to our environment/q>
      We are getting this rushed to the PM now so he can intervene with this new data. We’ll try to reverse this terrible mistake, and hope the world can be returned to some semblance of order and sanity.

      • Super Market virtue pretence is as hollow and pointless as they come. The PC saw no point in not having light weight multi use bags, plus they encourage impulse shopping, so a plurality for retailers. Meanwhile they still sell plastic bottled water by the pallet.

  • Wow, I didn’t know such comprehensive research had been done. That changes everything.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with what they said. I’ve asked all my friends and family and they’re the same. Whenever they got the old free plastic bags they’d re-use them instead of buying garbage bags. Or they’d use them for carrying or storing other stuff. It may only be a small statistical set but it’s got a 100% result.

    And as @wonderingaimlessly points out they’re still selling plastic bags. Most people still buy garbage bags (moreso now we can’t re-use out old shopping bags), and if you’re buying the 15c reusables they don’t last long before you need to throw them out too.

  • I still don’t understand what all the fuss about it is. We’ve had them gone for years here in Tassie and it was annoying for the first month or two and then everyone just got used to it

  • People just need to grow up and put the interest of the planet first. The new 15c bags aren’t solving the problem either, they’re thicker and will take longer to break down than the original bags, although turtles are less likely to think they are jellyfish. Believe it or not, we used to get our groceries in paper bags, they may need to be strengthened for modern day use but they would still suffice. The problem with the thin plastic bags is nowhere near being solved with the current model, just look at what you put your vege in, or the crap they pack the most innocuous items in for the sake of advertising. Real action by the big markets needs to cover the whole gambit of shopping needs.

    • The new 15c bags aren’t solving the problem either

      I’ve seen articles saying that unless each of the new bags is used at least 50 times, then the overall environmental impact is actually larger than the old bags.

      Like much of climate change “action”, it seems to be another example where it is more important to give the impression of doing the right thing, rather than actually doing something which will actually work.

  • My family has been using reusable fabric bags for well over a decade, but sometimes you just end up with some plastic ones. So, we kept them, and re-used them. I’d wrap my lunchbox in them, or send one to school with the kids for fundraiser stalls, or whatever. They weren’t single use, they’d be used a number of times before their final use of being filled with cat poo.

    They didn’t end up in the ocean, in the windpipe of a turtle. But I understand that many people’s bags did. So the ban is fundamentally a good thing.

    I used to get my bin liners free though, now I have to buy them. I’m looking into investing in McPherson’s Consumer Products (ASX:MCP), which owns Multix, which is a recognisable supplier of bin liners.

    I wonder if Multix bags break down faster or are in any way better.

  • It is a psychological problem, and its a very easy one to understand. Huge companies making huge profits want to look like they are saving the planet (whether they are or not is immaterial) and in doing so do something that directly and individually (and negatively) affects a person without any tangible or immediate benefit.

    It looks bad because they look like they are making choices that make them look good but their customers have to do all the work.

    It is the same with the self-service checkouts. When you use these (when they are open) YOU are doing more work, YOU have to pack the bag, YOU have to scan everything, YOU have to coordinate the (usually) awkward spaces and for what purpose? Nothing you bought was cheaper for it, you just did the work of someone the company would have had to pay and now don’t. They made more money because of what they choose to make you do in their stead.

    All big companies do it, its why they are big companies. The banks report record profits but gouge you at every turn with fees and poor interest rates and then it turns out they are all crooked anyway, and no one is even a little surprised.

    But it doesn’t make it any easier to like. People will accept it because they have no choice, they will adapt to it because they have no choice, but they don’t have to like it.

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