You might describe my boyfriend and I as environmentally conscious people. We don't work for Greenpeace or anything, but we saw An Inconvenient Truth and read Cradle to Cradle and subscribe to Dwell and make efforts to buy organic and conserve energy and recycle.
So you might expect this to translate to our shopping habits, and typically it does. When we each bought something at J.Crew last weekend, we asked that our purchases be put into one bag. Two bags is a waste. Sure, the salesgirl agreed, and put my stuff in his bag. Good for the environment, bad for the store.
Why is it bad for the store? Because shopping bags are a form of real-world advertising. You see a woman, presumably a well-dressed one, holding a J.Crew bag. Consciously or not, you ascribe her qualities to that brand. Wow, you think, J.Crew sure has attractive and fashionable customers. Maybe I should shop there too.
Stores want those bags out in the world, not tossed in a closet. This is why shopping bags have gotten more like purses and less like throwaways in the past few years. I've been handed bags lined with ribbon, coated with splashy paint, and made of materials far less recyclable than paper. The bag is now an extension of the brand, and with that title comes an obnoxious amount of waste. So whenever possible, I act like an informed consumer, and I skip the bag.
But sometimes, being an informed consumer isn't enough. We also visited Crate & Barrel last weekend. And what do C&B cashiers do with every item? They wrap it in tissue paper. Does that tissue paper save ceramic plates from cracking? I highly doubt it. But perhaps it gives the impression of safety. So fine, wrap each individual plate. Maybe it's helping people to think their new dishes won't break in the trunk of their SUV on the ride home.
However, we were buying dish towels. Just dish towels. Nothing fragile or heavy or expensive. Certainly dish towels don't need to be wrapped - if anything, they should be the wrapping! But it all happened so fast: the guy grabbed a big sheet of tissue paper, my boyfriend called out, "You don't need to - " and the guy cut him off with, "Too late!" He quickly finished the wrapping, gave a cheery smile and handed us the bag.
Shut down. We lost. We were no match for this man's sheer corporate obedience. He's been trained to wrap everything, presumably because of some "out-of-box experience" philosophy that everyone and their mother has borrowed from Apple. Perhaps Crate & Barrel imagines that when shoppers get home, they see their new dish towels, lovingly wrapped by the hands of the brand itself, and tied with a nice big bow of lifetime loyalty and positive word-of-mouth.
But does the wrapping make a difference to people? Do the bags make a difference to people? Because not to get all Doom And Gloom on you, but they are making a difference to our planet.
Now I don't think people are going to take a stand, exactly. You can raise awareness all you want, but you won't get shoppers to stomp their feet in defiance and say "If you wrap that placemat in tissue paper, god help me but I will never shop here again." Sure, we say, wrap it. Give me a big ornate bag filled with crinkly paper. It looks nice, implies some safety, and makes me feel special.
But frankly, people just take the bag because it's the default. They have their plates wrapped because it's the default. Americans will choose the default way more often than not; it's one less decision they have to make.
With that in mind, a good way to make change is to ask people to do nothing. Just engineer the environment around their inaction. So what if the default was no bag, no wrapping? The bag was readily available if they asked, but if they did nothing, they wouldn't get one? I think it would be a different world. Some people would take their dish towels as-is, and carry them out to the car. Or stick them in their backpack or purse. Many would ask for bags, but not all. Some would learn that they didn't really need a bag after all.
A final story: My mother used to buy our milk from a drive-thru shop called Farm Stores. She'd use the same line every time. "Gallon of skim milk, no bag." Every single time. We just didn't need a bag. It was one gallon of milk, and we were driving it straight home. She was an informed consumer, and didn't want to waste. However, because of this tiny extra effort, my mom was surely in the vast minority of customers.
Imagine if people had to say "Gallon of skim milk. Bag, please." I think we'd move the needle on packaging waste at retail.