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What's YOUR plastic bag?

A conversation with a hospitality industry professional at a sustainability breakfast touched on the subject of the plastic bag ban and its value in the transition to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy. We concluded that, while there a numerous activities that undoubtedly have a greater adverse effect on carbon emissions, the ban's greatest value is as a highly visible activity that takes place in the mainstream, thereby hopefully acting as a gateway to more meaningful action by consumers.

This got us thinking about our own sectors and our respective equivalents. The hotel sector was among the first to encourage its customers to help it reduce impacts - I can no longer remember a time when the ubiquitous "leave it on the floor and we'll wash it, hang it up and we won't" sign didn't appear in hotel bathrooms. In office imaging it's paper - signified, for many of us, by the "think before printing this email" footers. These are now so commonplace that their impact is often dismissed, but that doesn't necessarily negate their subliminal power to contribute to the nudge effect towards incremental behaviour change.

I can now catch a bus that is conspicuously powered by renewables and ride past numerous houses with solar PV panels into a town that has an active Freegle group, a repair cafe and a bicycle kitchen. Alternatively, if I buy my groceries online, I can arrange for my shopping to be delivered without bags and at a time when the vehicle is already in my area. Each of these small steps towards a more sustainable future may contribute little individually but together increase the visibility of low-impact options and edge us towards the tipping point where sustainable choices become the norm.

As sustainability professionals in business, we're advised to analyse our emissions and focus first on the actions that will have the largest direct positive impact but perhaps we’re missing a trick. For most organisations, the greatest opportunity for positive change lies in galvanising our customers into action – and, as M&S shows, if we do so with sufficient commitment it can transform our commercial outcomes too. It every business identified its own “plastic bag” and sought to engage its customers in a symbolic, highly visible act of sustainable living – better still, if it incentivised and rewarded it – then behaviour change might just become an unstoppableforce.