An overwhelming wave of consumer activism has rolled out in support of the campaign to eliminate single-use plastic straws, kick-started in 2017 by Lonely Whale. This kind of consumer interest in the environment is by no means a new phenomenon. Back in 1970 on the first ever Earth Day, 20 million people in the US joined the protest to raise awareness about the human impact on the environment. This was one of North America’s (and the world’s) first widespread and unified demonstration of concern about pollution.
These early concerns have only strengthened with time, as consumers increasingly demand transparency and accountability from corporations about their environmental impact. According to a global study carried out last year, 81% of consumers now say that they consider it ‘extremely important’ that companies should make changes to help the environment .
The Psychology of Consumer Activism
Despite not being new, the rapid nature of the spread of the plastic straw movement is remarkable. Ignited by the ‘Strawless in Seattle’ campaign in 2017, support has spread like wildfire. It has been picked up internationally and endorsed by a number of celebrities, from Amanda Seyfried to Russell Crowe. The #StopSucking hashtag achieved a social media reach of more than 304 million in just the first four months , and Lonely Whale believes that more than 29 million straws have been kept out of the waste system as a result .
However, according to National Geographic, plastic straws form just a tiny proportion (0.025%) of the plastic waste in our oceans. Considering this, why has this particular campaign been so successful in garnering our support? In this regard, it is no coincidence that Dune Ives, Lonely Whale’s Executive Director, holds a Ph.D. in Psychology.
While admitting that the straw movement itself is simply a “gateway” for wider changes, she discussed the strategic factors involved in encouraging behavioral change on such a wide scale. Crucially, she notes the importance of presenting consumers with the option to adopt this change of their own accord, as opposed to setting a mandate, because “[in] general, people reject being told what to do” . Essentially, the campaign has been a very effective ‘nudge.’
Why is Choice Important in Nudging us Toward Environmental Awareness?
Crucially, individuals have been able to choose whether to opt out of plastic straw usage. This means that if we engage with the movement, we are doing so actively, deliberately – and repeatedly. If consumers are offered this choice every time they enter a coffee shop, it means their brain must engage in an active decision-making process each time. If customers make a change to the usual behavior because the new choice aligns better with their value system, this process creates what is known as ‘internalised’ attitude change: a genuine alteration of private beliefs and behaviors, which they will continue in private .
In contrast, if a rule is imposed on customers, they might comply with the rule without necessarily agreeing with it. This is known as simple ‘compliance’ and is generally only enacted passively or in public. Internalization, on the other hand, generates longer-lasting attitude change, and generally produces knock-on behavioral changes as a result.
In the case of plastic straws, internalization would see consumers absorbing the ethos behind plastic waste reduction, and taking action to reduce their plastic usage with other products too. This might mean that on the way to work tomorrow that person will grab a flask to take with them instead of accepting their usual disposable coffee cup. Additionally, it might inspire them to buy some reusable containers instead of single-use freezer bags to store leftovers after dinner.
Strong individual engagement with the plastic straw cause has also led to consumers demanding changes from corporations. For example, a much-lauded result of the campaign has been the introduction of a ban on single-use plastic straws (and, in some cases, other single-use plastics) by a range of organizations, from Starbucks to Disney to the European Parliament.
Consumers can drive this type of change by wielding their purchasing power, using boycotting and ‘buycotting’: they can stop buying from brands whose values they don’t agree with, or deliberately buy from ethical companies in a show of support . The results are impressive; for example, McDonald’s has already replaced plastic straws with paper ones in its branches across the UK, which in itself has eliminated 1.8 million plastic straws per day. This reveals the impressive power of consumer activism, and the scale of the changes it is able to command.
The Benefits of the Plastic Straw Ban
Certainly, when all the promised bans come into effect, it will significantly reduce the waste created by single-use plastic straws. Although, crucially the reduction will be achieved by taking the decision away from consumers. It is worth considering what impact this will have on consumer behavior around other (and proportionally much larger) sources of plastic waste.
Ives herself has noted that the plastic straw campaign is “not really about straws”  – it is a starting point to ignite a wider conversation about a larger problem. The current approach is doing an impressive job of keeping the wider plastic waste issue high on the public radar, and consistently reminding consumers of the impact of individual plastic consumption.
The Pitfalls of the Plastic Straw Ban
However, if plastic straws become prohibited rather than opt-out, a decision will no longer be demanded, either from companies or their customers. Consumers may well stop thinking about the material the straws are made from in their local cafe, and the opt-in pledges on social media will become redundant. Customers are therefore less likely to internalize the ethos behind the movement, or to be inspired to reduce their consumption of other plastic products. Imposing bans could therefore restrict the positive knock-on effects of ‘internalisation’.
Subsequently, bans will more likely result in a passive type of behavioral change: simple ‘compliance’. Compliance is a more shallow type of conformity, and involves following a rule without experiencing any private attitude change. For example, if all local cafes begin to hand out drinks without a straw in, consumers aren’t likely to complain; however, the decision between ‘straw’ and ‘no straw’ has already been made, without being called to their attention. This could mean restricting some of the larger-scale knock-on changes which have so far been encouraged (both in individuals and corporations) by having an opt-in straw movement.
So, there are important advantages in retaining a choice of materials, meaning both corporations and consumers have to opt into better choices and to actively think about the materials they are consuming. Of course, positive environmental choices can be reinforced, and not just with straws. Some coffee shops already offer discounts as a reward for bringing your own flask, Additionally, higher costs could be imposed for the use of plastic utensils. Experiencing these outcomes every time you pick up a morning coffee can provide a nudge towards habit change, and gradually towards the creation of new norms.
If attitude change is achieved properly and thoroughly, then the consumer activism we are currently seeing is more likely to maintain its momentum. Going forward, it could be channeled towards bigger and more impactful changes. There is potential to turn the lens on the biggest culprits to make the changes we need – like demanding that all supermarkets follow Budgens’ example and commit to introducing plastic-free packaging.
Ultimately, it is vital to carefully consider the most effective way to effect change in environmental outcomes – and it may pay dividends to remember Ives’ own tactic: asking consumers to “embrace their own agency” . After all, as attitudes change, behaviors will follow suit.