Our 2007 I’m Not a Plastic Bag project with Anya Hindmarch was, at the time, hugely successful. We applied our product-centric approach to develop something practical and useful, injected fashion and celebrity to increase its appeal, and got a massive, mainstream audience very excited about it. In turn, we helped successfully mainstream a previously niche behaviour, taking regular use of reusable shoppers from hippy-ish fringes to something that millions of people did.
Over the two years following the launch of the project, which was complemented by plenty of other successful campaigns, use of plastic bag usage decreased by almost 50% at Sainsbury’s, our partner on the work. The same followed at other supermarkets and shops.
Tanya Gold’s recent piece in the Guardian takes plastic bags campaigns from the last 8 years to task – ours included. For the record, Tanya, we agree with some of what you say and we’ve been saying it for several years. We understand very well that the project represents something of a successful failure.
First of all, the behaviour change we sought did not stick. Plastic bag usage is still very high – around 8 billion bags a year – and is going up. The sustained net effect of all that work, all those column inches, is next to nothing.
Why? In the wake of a project like ours in 2007 and other campaigns, like Modbury's high profile local ban, immediate action was needed from government and business to cement the new behaviours and ban (or dramatically disincentivise) the plastic bag. The popular consensus was in place and it would have been a very low risk political move. It never happened and, while we were angry with the leaders, we’ve also learnt our own lessons. Our project needed more depth and more layers. It needed to be able to harness the popular consensus we'd helped create at different levels. It wasn't good enough to say “we've done our bit.” We've learnt from that experience. Every ounce of Historypin’s mainstream success, for example, is used at a local level, educational level, institutional level and political level to embed the behaviours it contains permanently into communities.
Secondly, the plastic bag debate has gone on and on and on, which represents the opposite of our intention. We designed the project to demonstrate how quickly and effectively a mass consumer audience could change its behaviours around a very simple, very small issue. That’s the potential power of using new products as the vehicles for new behaviours – nothing can flourish like a useful, desirable product in modern consumer society and, therefore, behaviours contained therein can flourish equally fast. After years of awareness raising and traditional campaigning that was having minimal effect on mainstream behaviour, we applied this approach to plastic bags very successfully.
But, we wanted plastic bags to disappear and then move on to the next behaviour, then the next, then the next – ticked off, one by one. Plastic bags represent 3.2% of our domestic waste – a small but easy win, we felt. But, depressingly, we’re still on page 1.
Over the last couple of months, we’ve been interviewed for a few articles and radio news pieces about the issue. What do the people behind the Anya bag think about the tax in Wales or new debate at Westminster about banning the bags? Despite being glad to be invited to be involved in the debate, we know that it shouldn't still be going on.
Thirdly, and leading on from this, the commitment to meaningful action from politicians and business on the environment seems to have shut down in the last few years. Moreover, the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that public concern about the environmental threat has decreased substantially over the last 10 years. Coinciding with the period when the scientific consensus about the reality of these threats has become as unanimous and unequivocal as a scientific consensus allows itself to be.
One prompt for us to go back to our analysis on this project is a re-entry into environmental behaviour change. Over the last few years, post I’m Not a Plastic Bag, we’ve been accumulating projects around social and health-related behaviours and issues. But now, on the back of a strong relationship with WRAP, we are embarking on the first of a series of waste related behaviour change projects.
We track and measure everything we do very carefully and success for us lies in real change, not media buzz. So, we’re applying everything we’ve learnt to this new work and we’re very positive. As we get closer to launching the first piece of that work, we’ll talk a bit more about how we’re applying what we learnt from our I'm Not a Plastic Bag project of 2007.