Because of your reusable grocery bag, you might be eating more ice cream.
As we might expect, according to a 22-month study from Fuqua/Duke and Harvard Business School, supermarket shoppers who decided to bring their own reusable bags purchased more organic foods. The interesting result though was that these individuals also picked up more chips or ice cream or cakes–what the authors of the paper called indulgences.
Where are we going? To the unintended consequences of green behavior.
The Impact of Self-Virtue
The reason for the indulgence purchases might have been moral licensing. Feeling self-virtue because of helping the environment or behaving in an admirable way, shoppers rewarded themselves with purchases that otherwise would have created some guilt. However, when a reusable bag requirement eliminated the self-virtue, people did not spend extra on candy bars, ice cream or chips.
In one 2011 water conservation study, some participants were asked to use less water and a control group was not. While the first group was sent conservation tips and had their water use monitored, the second group received nothing. And indeed, as you might expect, the people who were encouraged to conserve water used six percent less than the control group. But they also used 5.6 percent more electricity.
Again, do we have some moral licensing? Does self-virtue make us feel we can be a bit naughty elsewhere?
Our Bottom Line: Complementary Behaviors
Thinking economically, we can say that self-virtuous behavior and indulgence could be complementary behaviors. Like peanut butter and jelly, an increase in one can create more demand for the other.
The Harvard Duke paper suggests that retailers’ bottom lines can benefit from self-virtue. By encouraging-but not mandating- reusable bags, supermarkets can increase organics and indulgence spending. Aware of the phenomenon, they also should reposition “virtuous” products. Giving shoppers license to proceed onward to indulge, the virtuous organics and fruits and veggies could be near the entrance.
Or, as one writer said, “…locate the kale near the Kit Kats.”