There’s nothing new about plastic straws. They’ve been around for decades. But there has been a recent backlash against them.
Eric Hamerman, a marketing professor and expert in consumer behavior at Iona College in New York, says the change has to do with a new awareness of our impact on the environment.
“I think people are aware that the climate is getting warming, the Earth’s climate is changing, and part of that is man-made pollution,” he says. “And so to the extent that we can reduce that, I think that people are looking for ways they can do in their lives. You know, people in general like to feel that they have some sort of control over things. And when you read about some of these dire consequences that can occur as the climate changes, I think people are grasping for ways that they can make an impact. And, daily things like not using a plastic straw or using some kind of a reusable grocery bag at the store are everyday things that people can do.”
In Texas, some municipalities have decided to ban disposable plastic items, and a number of businesses have decided to stop using straws in their stores. The same thing happened with plastic bags, although the Texas Supreme Court recently overturned bag bans in Texas on the basis of state statue.
Hamerman believes the success around these particular products, rather than others, was “sort of dumb luck.” But the success of the movement to change consumer behavior as a whole has had to do with how advocates framed their message.
“If the framing is such that, whatever you’re doing it’s not enough, I think that could lead to fatigue,” he says. “So if I am very vigilant about not using plastic straws, and I’m very vigilant about using my reusable grocery bags, and I feel like I’m making a positive contribution, but somebody says, ‘Well, hey, you know, you’re not doing this that or the other thing,’ I could begin to feel helpless and say, ‘You know, whatever I do’s not enough, so why bother with my reusable grocery bags? Why bother with what I’m already doing?’”
If, on the other hand, the message is framed as, “‘Hey, we have an opportunity together to work and make the world a better place for our children and our grandchildren,’ I think it’s seen more positively.”
He points out that, as some cities and states move towards regulating items like bags and straws, “You can frame things positively even with regulation.”
Hamerman’s research is around social norms, and he’s found that, “if people think that there’s a social norm in place, they tend to follow it, because we also like to fit in.” He’s also found that people ultimately adapt quickly to new norms.
“Think back to tariffs on cigarettes,” he says, “the idea that we want, we agree it’s a good idea to not have teenagers who are under 18 who can’t really make an informed decision start smoking. So we’re going to put regulation on there, where packs of cigarettes are more expensive. And we all just understand that’s the way of the world now.”
“And again that’s really framing,” he says. “’Here’s an opportunity for us to help,’ versus, you know ‘You all are bad people, we need to stop.’”
Written by Rachel Taube.