How marketing reduced plastic bag use while creating a desirable product

Changing a habit of a lifetime is something that fashion designer Anya Hindmarch attempted with the launch of a bag she produced in conjunction with social change movement We Are What We Do.

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Three years ago the high-fashion “it bag” hit the shelves of Sainsbury’s. The £5 vegetable fibre “I’m not a plastic bag” was not only a fashion statement but a call to action to get people to stop using plastic carrier bags and instead take a more permanent version with them to the supermarket.

The combination of a relatively low price and a high-end designer whose bags sell for up to £2,000 saw people queuing for hours to get one, some of which were resold on eBay for £300 a time.

You can communicate things, build fame and effect change through products and services

Henry Chilcott, Antidote

Did this instant fashion really make a difference? Getting people to reduce their use of plastic bags, which historically have been plentiful at the end of the conveyer belt, has been a challenge. But between 2007 and 2009 the number of free plastic bags given out by the supermarket was reduced by 58%. So a desirable item was created, but with social change as a byproduct.

Tim Ashton, creative director of agency Antidote, which worked on the bag, is realistic about people’s motives for buying them. “Were people rushing out to get a jute alternative to a plastic bag? No, because those already existed. Were they just getting whipped up into a frenzy of publicity around it? Probably. But the lovely thing about the whole initiative was to get people to stop and think about plastic bag use.”

Antidote worked with We Are What We Do, which uses the principles of marketing and consumer need to create products that change behaviour.

We Are What We Do chief executive Nick Stanhope says that making products that encourage action is far more effective than just broadcasting brand messages. “Awareness campaigns and information are a very ineffective way of affecting behaviour change,” he says.

Antidote managing partner Henry Chilcott says: “We are in an industry that obsesses with inputs, and you see headlines saying that an ad agency has scooped a £100m account, and you immediately think about how you could spend that money.

“But you can communicate things, build fame and effect change through products and services.”

But while the Hindmarch bag generated a lot of publicity and changed behaviour for a short time, plastic bag use is up to the same level it was before the bag was launched. Stanhope feels the high created by marketing needed to be followed by a bag tax to make supermarkets produce fewer plastic bags, or to discourage the use of them.

He argues: “The messages have got through – people understand the damage plastic bags do. But that understanding does not always affect people’s behaviour.

“As a consensus developed for action, legislation that taxed the use of plastic bags and would have cemented the behaviour change was not enacted,” Stanhope says.

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