Remembering Reusable Grocery Bags Makes Us Buy More Junk Food

Image courtesy of (Jennifer Moo)

Reusable shopping bags: they’re environmentally friendly, earn you a discount, and let you express your loyalty to your favorite grocery store when there isn’t a Wegmans available within a two-hour drive. Yet here’s an interesting question: do they have an effect on our behavior? Are there any major differences between shoppers who bring their own bags and those who don’t?

Most people would assume that reusable bag users buy healthier food than people who don’t bring their own bags. That is, as it turns out…not really true. An analysis of store loyalty card data showed that people who bring their own bags do buy more organic products, out of what is most likely a combination of health and environmental concerns. However, when compared to other shoppers, they’re buying a lot more junk food.

“They weren’t replacing other items with junk food, as they did with organic food,” researcher Uma Karmarkar explained to the Harvard Business Review. “They were just adding it to their carts.” Customers who bought, say, organic baby carrots would buy those instead of conventionally grown carrots. Yet the shoppers with reusable bags were buying a lot more cookies and ice cream overall, and those purchases weren’t replacing anything.

Here’s the best part: the researchers were even able to sort out shopping trips by the same household where they did or did not bring the bags along. The same people were more likely to buy junk food when they remembered to bring the bags. One exception: households who were also buying baby items. They didn’t buy extra treats when using reusable bags.

Why is this? The researchers believe that we’re all rewarding ourselves, unconsciously, for the virtuous behavior of remembering to bring along that reusable bag. It’s not a conscious decision, of course: maybe even reading this article will inoculate you from the behavior.

Reusable Bags Make People Buy Organic—and Junk [Harvard Business Review]