As we kick off 2019 with the government still squarely focused on Brexit, it’s easy to forget that there are other domestic policies and interventions on the horizon. We’re especially interested in two areas where the government is looking to influence consumer behaviour through new legislation.
Let’s start with plastic carrier bags, a hot topic as consumers become more aware of the impact of their use of plastics. The government has published a consultation setting out plans to extend the charge to small retailers by 2020 and is seeking views on increasing the charge from 5p to 10p. ACS supports this because most of you (79%, in fact) support the same rules across all businesses. However, does it follow that doubling the cost to consumers who choose to use plastic carrier bags will halve the number of bags given out by stores? Will this penalise impulse and convenience shoppers, as well as forgetful ones? Will consumers who supported bag charging just feel unduly punished? The success of a universal carrier bag charge in Wales and Scotland came with the charge set at 5p, so 10p is currently untested ground. One of the concerns that we raised when this idea was initially floated was that people could start to see bags for life as disposable, which could have a more significant negative impact on the environment. There’s also the question of whether Wales and Scotland will follow in increasing the charge to 10p.
If questions are complex for a fairly simple mechanism like carrier bag charging, the psychology and incentives that might change people’s diet choices look even more complex. Measures being looked at as part of the UK and Scottish governments’ obesity strategies include restrictions on the siting of certain products and on the way they can be promoted. Whatever route the government decides to take on this it must recognise the differences between how large and small stores operate, not least space limitations in forecourts where, ultimately, only a small proportion of the sugar, salt and fat consumed is purchased.
But stepping back a little, is this really the best approach if we want to make lasting changes to consumers’ behaviour?