Saturday, 16 October 2010

We are a funny lot

Consumer behaviour is so complex that nobody really understands it. That's why there's a massive and flourishing market research industry to try and fathom this mysterious creature called you and me. Perhaps this is not so mysterious - after all the consumer is usually referred to as "she" instead of "he". And who can claim to fathom the mystery of the female of the species .......

Take the case of consumer behaviour in relation to plastic bags. When I first went to Guangzhou, I did the usual thing - go to a supermarket, buy tons of stuff you don't really need and cart it away in about 27 plastic bags . Since there are a lot of people in China and a lot of supermarkets, this translated into zillions of plastic bags let loose on the environment. Bad. Campaigns to "save the planet" yielded zero results. Mrs Li continued to merrily buy every kind of meat imaginable and carry them away in plastic bags.

The Guangzhou municipality hit upon a brainwave. Instead of banning plastic bags outright, as governments are wont to do, they simply decreed that shops must charge 20 jiao (or cents/paise) for every bag that the consumer wants. You would have thought that Mrs Li wouldn't care less - she's after all buying some 500 yuan worth of stuff. But no; much to everybody's surprise Mrs Li decided that she must contribute to saving the planet after all. She decided to bring her own bag to carry the groceries home . Lo and behold - plastic bag consumption fell by about 80%. You could still get one for convenience if you wanted, by paying 20 jiao, but you could also feel good about being responsible with the environment and bring your own bags. Great. Perfect mix of convenience and responsibility.

But then the same Mrs Li carries an umbrella - you see, it drizzles in Guangzhou virtually every day. And in front of the same supermarket which is shouting hoarse about saving the environment, there stands a pretty security lady who's wrapping your wet umbrella in a polyurethane cover so that the water does not drip in the shop. These are the extremely thin types - virtually no reuse potential at all and they are simply chucked. So zillions of plastic bags find their way into the waste dumps after all.

Why I write about this, is my experience being back home. There's no such rule in Bangalore; so our own Rajalakshmi merrily goes about filling plastic bags in the shop. This being India, and she being, shall we say, rather generously proportioned, there's more food to be bought !! So instead of the 27 plastic bags of Mrs Li, Rajalakshmi fills up 34 bags. And weightlifting not being her forte (in fact nothing remotely athletic being her cup of tea), she gets the shop to deliver this mountain to her home. Bangalore, with a questionable garbage disposal system, is literally choking under the weight of the plastic bags that its coders generate.

This blogger is of the view that he must make a small contribution - so he carries along his jholna bag (rather goes with the non corporate image being furiously cultivated). Try entering an Indian shop with a bag - you are branded a thief unless you can prove innocence; so stealing aids such as bags have to be strictly deposited outside. Attempts to explain green logic to Mr Bahadur Thapa standing at the entrance evokes total non comprehension. And even if you get past Mr Thapa, the checkout insists on putting the stuff into a plastic bag and then very helpfully placing it into my jholna. Environment be damned.

So what will work in Bangalore ? To make Rajalakshmi bring her own bags ?? Even if you are a genius in fathoming the minds of a consumer in other parts of the world, I bet you stand no chance with Rajalakshmi. So nothing short of a completely whacky idea will work. Readers are invited to contribute. Mine is to get some sundry frauds masquerading as god men to issue an edict that plastic bags from supermarkets are likely to result in arthritis of your small toe. The more illogical, the better - if its issued by a so called god man, it will be implicitly believed as gospel truth. Then maybe we can save Bangalore from being choked to death.


zeno said...

Wondering how u came up with the name rajalakshmi and get away wit remarks on her.
Actually the jolna pai or manja pai is the best solution.
Forget bangalore, even in small towns, if u carry manja pai or some other bag even for normal shops you sure will get a look with contempt!

zeno said...

Also wondering why to worry about cultivating a corporate image when goin for a shopping?

Ramesh said...

@zeno - Its a safe name I just picked since I don't know anybody with that name !! And "non corporate" look my friend - how on earth can you look corporate with a jholna pai ??

J said...

Assuming for a second that you do want ideas to deal with your friend Rajalakshmi :), here is my idea... Mr Thapa will collect R's bags and give her a token (as is part of his current routine) which she hands over to the cashier at the check-out who then has the bags delivered to him by one of the ubiquitous chaps running up and down the store looking busy. That takes cares of any aspersions of shoplifting. What's in it for R? Everyday a few random tokens are lucky winners if they use only their own bags. I'm sure you can come up with suggestions for the lucky prize that will get R salivating.

Anonymous said...

I dont remember my father buying and bringing something in a plastic bag,he always carried his own bag and we too when in chennai,Same with my FIL.
But with the females the business gets tougher.They really want one plastic bag for each item they buy and they also demand shopkeeper to put each item in seperate bag,(shopkeeper cribs as he has to spend 25 paise for cover while our ammani is buying 1 rupee item),afterall they need some bag for garbage disposal.
Here the supermarkets sold something similar to jholna pai imagining peoplw will show interest and buy that immd,but no response,so they are now providing us with 101 oxo-bio degradeable bags whenever we shop and i can only suggest that idea.
But still Indians are Indians,they may print oxo-bio degradeable in any bag and they will sell or keep one OBD bag on top and rest all normal ones.Effecting a change in India is not a small business.
Sorry for the long rant.

Ramesh said...

@J - Very innovative idea ! The lucky prize is probably just 1p off , given the pathalogical delight in getting a discount.

@ambulisamma - Very true. Change is real real tough.

Deepa said...

I am assuming this situation arises in a shopping mall where you have to weight-lift all that you've picked around the huge expanse before you reach the cash counter. In that case, the good old shopping cart should do the trick, to transport your stuff till the exit, where you can must have been asked to leave your jolna.

In a sabji mandi (which is my personal favourite for doing groceries), the guys are pretty stingy with plastic bags, coz it eats into their profit. In a sunday haat (sabji mandi), you better be carrying a jolna if you want to be entertained.

Ramesh said...

@Durga - Not its the post checkout action that I am moaning about. If the jholna cannot be taken in, then there's no way to prevent those plastic bags from materialising. And modern day sabji mandi's are worse. The very thin plastic bag surfaces , which cannot be reused even once. At least the supermarket version gets reused as garbage bags.

Anonymous said...

tamizh cinema titleslaam tamizhla vacha tax relief thara mathiri..plastic bag use pannatha shopsku ethachum relief undu panna ethachum nadakumo ennamo. But still..attitudes of peepals are like plastic itself. Undestructible. Udipi hotella sambara plastic bagla potu pack panni tharatha stop panna solunga...naan nirutharennu orama oru kural varathaan seiyum.

Sandhya Sriram said...

happy to be back from my holiday and get back to your blogs!!

i am also one of those rajalakshmi - not as bad as what ambulisamma mentioned though.

but i feel its a larger problem. one is the jolna pai to go and buy stuff. for ex: most of the shopping in my house is done by the older people at home. obviously, they cannot carry it home and it gets home delivered. it is not practical as it stands today to leave some 10 jolna pai with the shopkeeper (if not 34).

then comes the other uses of the plastic bags - you have to send back yesterday's food with the maid, you use plastic bags - paper bags - wet and drip

Yesterday - i was travelling from kerala into tamilnadu - i had packed lunch from a hotel in pallakkad, while the food was nicely packed in banana leaf and tied with paper - obviously that is not enough to sustain a journey, you need a sturdy plastic bag to carry to same - so the hotel guy put the environmentally friendly packaging into a suffocating plastic bag and i gladly accepted.

some one comes home, you give vettalai pakku - they dont bring jolna with them expecting you are gonna give them something - do they?

100s of such things you can write where plastic bags have been an integral part of our very existence.

rather than blaming rajalakshmi, i think the country need to make up its mind on what people should do and then driving people to do it is the next task. Jolna drive is just not enough

20 paise cess on non recylcable plastic covers is a good suggestion - it is worked world wide - so this would motivate to bring jolna pai.

some sort of subsidies to paper based bag users could motivate people to put that extra investment.

adequate awareness could be one

effective recycling of plastic and encouragement to use recyclable plastic is probably another option.

i think we let poor rajalakshmi be until we tell her what to do without burning her pocket :-) what you say?

Deepa said...

@sandhya- hehehehe... god we missed u! :D

Vishal said...

I think many of us are like Rajalakshmi including me. Carrying a jholna bag from home to buy stuffs - most of the times this also depend on the product you are going to shop. I doubt the person carrying it would think of more sound rational of doing so.

What Mr. Thapa could do is perhaps organize a "Miss World" competition of jholna bag wherein he will select most beautiful bag based on his own peculiar taste. The winner of this competition would get two jholna bags for free and free delivery of products for 3-4 times - that too in a jholna bag (returnable) :)

Sandhya Sriram said...

hey deepa that was very sweet of you - felt nice - thanks!

A sequel to my earlier comment -
extremely motivated by this blog, yesterday evening, i indeed took out a jholna pai and went shopping for vegetables in one of these shops. the shop insisted that i put each of the vegetables in seperate polyurethane cover since it is easier for them to weigh it that way and affix a price label. so instead of carrying back 1 possibly recyclable covers, i brought back 34 non recyclable ones and could do nothing but throw it into the dustbin to add to bangalore's choking!!

Ramesh said...

@gilsu I thought your idea would be some film where Vijay/asin/Rajni (only names i know because I googled !) are portrayed as cool swinging a jholna in some movie - and then leave it to the natural order of things in movie mad India to take its own course !

@Sandhya - You weren't just missed . we were all suffering from an acute "longing for Sandhya" syndrome. Incidentally, that is still continuing for followers of your blog ! As for your analysis - solid Sandhya logic - irrefutable, right and elegantly put as always.

@Vishal - Great idea to enetertain Mr Thapa's life. Incidentally, if you belong to the breed, then I'll change my mythical Indian's name to Vishalakshi !!

Vishal said...

Now that is very innovative Ramesh! LOL... Well, I definitely fall into the breed but I doubt I am so generous to fill 34 bags instead of 27 ... hehehehe! :)

KC said...

"Try entering an Indian shop with a bag - you are branded a thief unless you can prove innocence"..can't stop laughing (with some blurry images coming in front of my eyes from Indian movies)
I am surprised to know that China implemented such policy, even first world countries like US of A is far lagging behind. Go green is only a concept at lower level. First time when we went to Walmart here, we can back with flood of plastic bags. They pack one item in one bag almost.Crazy. It's good in India though where they will stuff so many items in one bag that it will only last until you reach home.

Next two times same thing happened and we started feeling bad (looking at heap of plastics). So now we carry jholna from home. I realized that it's an individual effort at the end of the day.

There are few stores back in Delhi, they will not give you a free plastic bag but they will sell a big sack for 7 bucks deposit. Next time when you pass by, you can return the sack and claim back 7 bucks. I found it working there. If you carry your own jholna then Mr. Thapa would ask you to keep it outside, then you go shopping inside, when you are footing the bill then you can get your jholna back from Mr. Thapa. So that way Mr. Thapa is little flexible :)

But not sure what would work in the "sabzi market"?

Ramesh said...

@KC - Nice to see you back. Well, The US is , in many ways, a land of excess. The amount of packaging consumption is massive there. The trouble with these things is that its very difficult to change behaviours. That's why the move in Guangzhou that dramatically reduced use of plastic shopping bags virtually overnight is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Ramesh, when I was a young boy I use to work in a supermarket after school packing the shelves full of goods. Part of my job was to then put the empty boxes (which the goods came in) at the front of the supermarket for shoppers to use to takes there goods home in once they purchased them - not one sign of a plastic bag in sight !!! - shoppers would then unpack their box of groceries at home, squash the box they transported the goods in and place them into a recycling bin - and the whole process would start again - Mmmm maybe we can still learn from the past !!!!!!. I know...., it could be called
re-recycling !!!! Regards from trevor

RamMmm said...

Ha Ha Ha. Humorous take, sire, on our 'habits'.

Maybe, there needs be an ad-campaign integrated into the middle of the soaps (if the characters do it, so would we!), cricket matches and the reality shows for some degree of interest and awareness.

I don't know what happened to the supposedly successful experiment of mixing plastic with bitumen for laying roads, which made the roads stronger. You can see a few roads with that sign in 'Namma Bengaluru'. Maybe someone vetoed it, for there would be no money then for the contractors who fill up pot-holes for lakhs of rupees every year.

Anyway charity starts at home... Keep a bag or two in your car and it could come in handy.

Ramesh said...

@RamMmm - Delighted to see you back. Unsure what happened to the plastic mixing in bitumen - I think it continues and is a great way of recycling.

Ramesh said...

@Trevor - We can learn a lot from the past indeed. Why at all did that excellent practice stop .....

Viji said...

I think if we can bring this practice in a few hill stations, why not in the bigger metros? I know it is easier said than done but when we went to a supermarket in Kodai, we came out balancing the paperbags (with no handles). Next day promptly the jolna pai was brought out and left at the the security point to be filled with your paper bags.
It needs a lot of self discipline!!!
Probably, this will help recycle paper as well as help tiny sector to start making paper bags.

Ramesh said...

@Viji - It can, and must, be brought into the metros. If each of us did just a little bit, the environment would be far less polluted.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I just found out my home is full of recyclable bags! Why? after China started charging plastic bag in supermarket, every time I forgot bring my own bag, I bought a bag which costs me 200 jiao. I thought I will use it every time in my entire life.. then, next time I forgot it again... then.. again and again... I spent more and more money on bags but I believe I protected earth with less using plastics .. haha

How are you? Ramesh… I just heard you will not come and watch Asian games… what a pity!


Ramesh said...

@Carol - Lovely to see you here. Ha Ha - you are protecting the earth by safely conserving plastic bags !!

Hope you are doing fine. Tough for me to come to Asian Games, but I would love to , if I can. Just to see you all - no point in seeing the Asian Games ever since Xie Xinfang retired !!!!!

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