Environment & Science

How A Grocery Store's Plan To Shame Customers Into Using Reusable Bags Backfired

The East West Market in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, offered single-use plastic bags with embarrassing slogans to encourage customers to utilize reusable bags.
The East West Market in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, offered single-use plastic bags with embarrassing slogans to encourage customers to utilize reusable bags.
/Courtesy of East West Market

Public shame.

That's the tactic one Canadian grocery store used to get customers to ditch single-use plastics and instead utilize reusable shopping bags.

Shoppers who didn't bring in their own bags to the East West Market in Vancouver left with groceries in bags that read "Wart Ointment Wholesale," "Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium," or "The Colon Care Co-Op."

For store owner David Kwen, the bags evolved out of wanting to bring more awareness to reducing consumption — in a humorous way.

Kwen printed the eyebrow-raising slogans on the bags with the assumption that people would be embarrassed to carry them, he tells Here & Now's Robin Young. In a post on Instagram, the market said, "It's hard to always remember a reusable bag. We redesigned our plastic bags to help you never forget again!"

But the scheme backfired.

People began flocking to the market, paying 5 cents each in hopes of collecting the designs.

Although the bags were meant to force customers to think twice about their plastic consumption use — smaller text on the bags read "Avoid the shame. Bring a reusable bag" — Kwen wasn't defeated by the attention his plan got.

"The underlying thing is that it creates conversation, and that's what we actually wanted to get across to the general public," he says.

He decided to capitalize on all the excitement by giving his idea an eco-friendly spin. East West Market will soon have canvas tote bags with the humorous designs printed on the front.

And now is the perfect time for Kwen to promote a message of sustainability. Less than 10% of plastic used in Canada gets recycled. Canadians will throw away an estimated $8.3 billion worth of plastic materials each year by 2030 without a change in course, the government said in a statement. Following in the footsteps of the European Union, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in early June that Canada will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021.

In his personal efforts, Kwen still believes in using comedy to hammer the point home.

"If you talk to people in a nice, humorous way, I think they listen," Kwen says.

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