Vancouver may be ground zero for the sustainability culture in Canada. David Lee Kwen is the owner of East West Market in that city and he is concerned about the impact single use plastic bags have on the environment, so he started charging 5 cents apiece for them. His customers happily paid the extra nickel a bag and kept right on using them. Clearly, he needed to try something else.
So he came up with the idea of plastic bag shaming. He had his supplier print up bags that say “Wart Ointment Wholesale” or “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium” on them. Now if his customers still want plastic bags to carry their groceries home, they have to suffer the indignity of being seen in public with those humiliating slogans on their bags. And they still have to pay a nickel apiece for them.
Kwen tells The Guardian his plan isn’t to embarrass customers — well, maybe a little. “We wanted to give them something humorous, but also something that made them think at the same time. It’s human nature not to want to be told what to do.”
The hope was that the bags would get customers thinking about their consumption habits. In a social media campaign, East West Market points out that millions of single use plastic bags are used around the world every day. They are a threat to wildlife if not properly disposed of or sit for decades in landfills if they are.
Just this week, Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to ban most single use plastics — especially plastic bags — starting in 2021. The ban will likely include plastic straws and cutlery as well.
The East West Market campaign is having some unexpected results. The shaming bags have become a hot item. “Some of the customers want to collect them because they love the idea of it,” he says. But that doesn’t mean Kwen’s plan isn’t working. “Even if you have the bag, you have to explain its origin to your friends. And then,we’ve started a conversation.”
So now Kwen is thinking about transferring those logos to multi-use canvas bags to sell to his customers. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “We wanted to address an issue, but we’ve also made something popular, so it’s turned out great.” Proving once again the Law of Unintended Consequences is still in full force and effect when it comes to human behavior.