Saturday, October 16, 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.