How Slow Can You Go?

This Wall Street Journal article uses an example I’ve brought up before to say that guilt is the route to greener behavior. No, it isn’t.

Washington, D.C., imposed a five-cent tax on every disposable bag, paper or plastic, handed out at any retail outlet in the city that sells food, candy or liquor, effective Jan 1. But more important than the extra cost was something more subtle: No one got bags automatically anymore. Instead, shoppers had to ask for them—right in front of their fellow customers.

The result? Retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter handed out 11 million bags in the first quarter of this year and fewer than 13 million bags in the second quarter, according to the district’s Office of Tax and Revenue. That may help explain why volunteers for the city’s annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup day in mid-April pulled 66% fewer plastic bags from the Anacostia River than they did last year.

District Councilman Tommy Wells doesn’t believe it is the nominal cost that’s keeping shoppers from using bags, but rather the expectation—made clear in a very public way in every transaction—that they could make do without. “It’s more important,” he concludes, “to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks.”

This is a decent example that draws the wrong conclusions. Yes, there are measurable returns from using pricing to effect behavior – and we definitely should use them. But the green aspect of this is about as lame as you can possibly expect. Using guilt isn’t the best way to get anyone to do anything and so should be given no quarter here. Peer pressure is perhaps a different story. But invoking guilt makes this just another marketing campaign destined to lose steam after a while – or worse, avail people of a work around. Because we will find ways to feel good about who we are and what we do, even if denial is one of them. And this is a far more powerful force than any guilt that can be summoned to make you use less, walk more, take a train, turn someone instead of something on at night.

Here is our greatest possibility. We’re interested in sexy and are powerless before it. So when slow is sexy (deja, already!), and the two get connect (Hook up!*) in people’s minds, we’ve got a renewable hold on being green. We just don’t yet think about it that way.

But, take your time, fer chrissakes. With everything.

* Good grief – the  bus and billboard campaigns literally write themselves – a young man, a nipple: “Turn it off – and Turn her On!”