An intriguing study by Uma Karmarkar of the Harvard Business School and Bryan Bollinger of Duke University’ Fuqua School of Business has discovered a correlation between shoppers who use reusable shopping bags and the food they buy.

The study analysed data from the loyalty cards of thousands of Californian shoppers.

“It was clear,” said Professor Karmarkar to the Harvard Business Review, “that shoppers who brought their own bags were more likely to replace non-organic versions of goods like milk with organic versions.

“So one green action leads to another. But those same people were also more likely to buy foods like ice cream, chips, candy bars, and cookies. They weren’t replacing other items with junk food, as they did with organic food. They were just adding it to their carts.”

The phenomenon behind this type of buying is known as ‘licensing’. “If I behave well in one situation,” continued professor Karmarkar, “I give myself license to misbehave in another, unrelated situation.

And this has a big impact on their bill at the counter. As these ‘reward items’ are amongst the most expensive (per volume) in the store.

Similar research has also been done on health decisions. I get a Diet coke’ I treat myself to a hamburger. In this case bringing a bag makes you think you’re environmentally friendly, so you get some ice cream. You feel you’ve earned it.”

The effects of licensing, she concludes, are likely to wear off as the use of recycling bags becomes more accepted.

“It used to be that you felt as if you were doing a good thing by recycling bottles. Now it’s to the point where you don’t get a cookie for recycling them; you just get penalised if you don’t. You get nasty stares.”

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