When Being Green Turns Into Being Obnoxious

One of GOOD magazine's most discussed blog entries is How to Politely Refuse a Plastic Bag. The light, illustrated piece has practical information, but the comments section hit a nerve for me.

Most of the comments were fine, and a few reminded me that twenty years ago plastic was pushed as a better choice than paper. A handful, though, were anecdotes about setting cashiers straight. Apparently, "no, I've been to Africa" is a reasonable reply to "would you like a bag?" A cashier's puzzled look is then an invitation to talk about plastic bags littering the Kenyan landscape. And when buying a backpack, repeatedly answering the bag question with "I'm buying a bag" should not throw a cashier who bags thousands of items a day and is probably on autopilot for rote parts of the job.

Before working fulltime in nonprofits, I was a bookseller.* I found that asking "would you like a bag?" got one of three responses: "Yes," or an angry "of course I do!" or an ultra serious "it's bad for the environment, and I don't want to contribute to more non-biodegradable waste in landfills." The third one had many variations, including the unintentionally hilarious "save a tree!"

My coworkers and I, despite not liking plastic bags ourselves, found the environmental responses grating. The exception was customers with a sense of humor ("save a plastic tree!"). More frequently, however, responses felt like condescending lectures, where we were being "enlightened" by the smarter, more aware customers. We got to be enlightened repeatedly, throughout each day.

A simple "no, thanks" would do just fine. Cashiers, or any other service workers, are tasked with pleasing their customers. What makes one happy ticks off the next one, so it's a balancing act. Businesses also have standard procedures that employees are required to follow, especially at the register. In some stores, bags are required so it's clear that a customer isn't shoplifting.

We're all partners in making change, so enough with the self-righteousness. Lectures or admonitions about bags, or water use or public transportation, don't involve listening. They come from a position of "I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm going to tell you why."

What to do instead? Be strategic.

  • Actions speak louder than words. Bringing your own bag or simply turning down a plastic one helps shift the demand away from plastic.
  • Calling or emailing store management makes more sense than bugging the cashier who has no power to change store procedures. Ask why a business does what you think is unnecessary, since the need may be genuine even if the solution is not ideal. Understanding why things work the way they do makes us better able to suggest workable solutions.
  • Help change laws. Here in Washington, DC we have a new $.05 tax on plastic bags used in stores selling food. Not only are reusable bags becoming abundant, but the taxes that are collected go to cleaning up the Anacostia River.

As another person commented on the Good site: "Maybe not every single cashier gets it, but OH the snobby lectures and eyerolls I have gotten over my many years of working in retail.... and from people I actually agree with, no less."

Insulting supporters, let alone would-be supporters, is no way to build a movement for change.

* I managed independent bookstores, so I must add please support independent stores! Check out IndieBound and Powell's Books and skip Amazon and the big chains.

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    # by Anonymous - March 10, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    What a great piece. I am a proud treehugger and found this article insightful and objectively written. I'll pay more attention to my tone when sharing my thoughts with regarding the use of plastic bags with innocent bystanders such as grocery store employees. As you said, "We're all partners in making change, so enough with the self-righteousness." Well done.

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    # by Shannon Johnson - March 10, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    Love the post. I have had cashiers look at me funny or laugh when I forget my bag, and make the brave attempt of carrying out a bunch of groceries in my arms. To make a difference in the way people think and act, you can't piss them off because the only thing you've accomplished is - Pissing them off. Laughter, kindness, and non judgment of others is the way to get people to become interested enough to find out why you are taking the "green"actions you are taking and inspire them to follow along!

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    # by Anonymous - March 11, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    I enjoyed this article as it points out the irritating tendencies of many self-described environmentalists. They are quite adept at creating impossible double standards while preaching morality to elevate themselves. Unfortunately, you turned your own article in obnoxious when you stated that you managed independent bookstores and requested readers to "skip Amazon and the big chains".

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    # by Tracy Moavero - March 16, 2010 at 8:03 PM

    Dear Anonymous: I suspect you've missed the whole point of my blog. I make recommendations on how we build social change. Not sure how encouraging people who come to the blog to shop at local businesses qualifies as "obnoxious." That's quite different from giving a cashier a hard time in the middle of their workday.

    I've experienced unionbusting as a Borders employee, and I've seen tons of small businesses go under because of chains directly targeting them. That drains money from local economies. The big chains also have too much cultural power. In the case of Borders, that power becomes even more American cultural influence in other countries, which is especially troubling to me as a lover of arts and literature. So I often encourage friends, colleagues and others to shop at independent bookstores since I find a lot of them are unaware of what's at stake.

    You'll have to provide a better argument - or any argument - for me to see what the heck you're talking about.

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    # by Tracy Moavero - March 16, 2010 at 8:22 PM

    Thanks, folks, for the kind words and the insights. I certainly learn the most from people who expose me to knew ideas and perspectives with respect and humor (juggling purchases!). I can specifically pinpoint the moments I learned to stop running water I wasn't using, to try out a local coop, to use union print shops, to join a public protest, and a bunch of other things. I'm grateful to the people who pointed out what I could do differently in a kind way, who invited me to try something new or who just plain did something I'd never seen before, prompting me to ask questions. Even when I've considered a change and not adopted it, I've at least had the information to make a choice.

    (By the way, if there's a "life is pain" icon still next to my name, it's not intentional. I have no idea how I ended up with that! Computing in my sleep??)