Penalty or Cost? Effect of Levy Framing on Reducing Plastic Bag Consumption

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    This research examines the effect of framing plastic bag levy as a penalty versus a cost on reducing consumer usage of plastic bags.

    Abuse and disposal of plastic bags have been a serious environmental problem worldwide. Many countries and regions have implemented plastic bag levy policies, which require consumers to pay for each disposal plastic bag they obtained from retail stores, to encourage consumers to use fewer plastic bags. However, the levy’s effect seems short-lived. In Hong Kong, for instance, the amount of plastic bags disposed of dropped immediately after levy implementation; but the number rose back to the original level in one to three years (see Table 1; Environmental Protection Department, HKSAR Government 2020).

    This research aims to explain why existing plastic bag levy policies are ineffective and propose ways to improve levy effectiveness in reducing plastic bag consumption. We conceptualize the decision to demand a plastic bag or not in a purchase situation is influenced by: (1) how guilty consumers associate with plastic bag consumption, as well as (2) how well they can justify using plastic bags in that situation. Importantly, we propose that modifying the framing of levy (i.e., what the levy means) could enhance or impair levy’s effect on reducing plastic bag usage intention. Framing levy as a penalty highlights that using plastic bags is morally wrong, thereby intensifying consumers’ anticipated guilt of using plastic bags and driving them to avoid doing so. However, framing levy as a cost for processing plastic bag disposal suggests that, by surrendering the levy, consumers could “pay for their sins.” This framing offers consumers a justification for using plastic bags and does not help curbing plastic bag consumption. This justification account explains why existing waste management policies in Hong Kong, which advocate the “user pay” principle, do not help curbing plastic bag consumption.

    This research offers significant theoretical and practical contributions. First, although prior studies have used different ways of message framing, such as losses versus gains framing (Bull 2012; Min et al. 2014) and number size framing (Kallbekken, Sælen, and Hermansen 2013), to encourage socially responsible consumption (SRC), this research is the first study that proposes a “penalty versus cost” framing and examines its effect to promote SRC. This way, this research opens up a new direction of positioning marketing strategies to regulate consumer behavior. Second, this research develops a SRC decision making model that integrates thoughts from two conflicting perspectives. From the moral perspective, SRC involves altruistic choices and behaviors benefiting others (e.g., environment and society). However, studies based on the consumer perspective often show that consumers engage in SRC for self-serving motives (e.g., impression management). This research is a response to the call for research on SRC conceptualization (Vitell 2015; Xie et al. 2015). We propose a conceptual model that embraces thoughts on SRC from both the moral and consumer perspectives, and identifies the conditions when the effect based on the moral versus consumer perspective would be more pronounced and predictive of SRC decisions. This way, we not only resolve the conflicting views in the SRC literature, but also broaden the applicability of existing knowledge on SRC to different contexts. Third, by operationalizing our conceptual model in the plastic bag levy context, we identify marketing efforts that can facilitate consumers to make more SRC decisions. As such, we not only provide significant insights to plastic bag levy policy makers, but we also demonstrate to marketers that our theorization can be applied to a specific context to formulate suitable marketing strategies to promote SRC.
    Effective start/end date1/01/2231/12/23


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