I was walking up Park Avenue from Soho the other night with a plastic bag of groceries. Suddenly I felt incredibly negatively conspicuous toting my plastic sack.

I was getting dirty looks from everyone I passed. (I’m pretty sure it was not my imagination). It was as if there was a huge scarlet “P” for “Plastic User” seared into my forehead.

In my defense, this blatant “plastic toting” is no longer my standard behavior. Thanks to pressure from my daughter, I now bring the canvas sacks to Stop & Shop on the weekends. I just happened to be doing some spontaneous lunchtime shopping near my office and didn’t have my canvas tote with me. (I swear your honor).

It got me thinking…when did scorning plastic bags go from a marginal “greenie” behavior to such a mainstream one?

The speed in which new consumer behaviors are taking root is dizzying. Some of these new behaviors are motivated by concern for the environment, others are a response to the recession. But what seems really clear (and a bit frightening) is the way that people behave is changing…and changing fast.

What other behaviors driven by the environment, the recession or both are rapidly taking hold?

One macro-trend that keeps coming up in the conferences I’ve been attending is “Fashionable Frugality”. The idea that saving money, and flaunting those savings is suddenly super chic.

Here are a few examples of this:

Buying at thrift stores…and telling everyone about it
Shopping our own closets and even hiring consultants to help us do this
Holding “swap” parties which address both the environment and the recession
“No gifts please” birthday parties, weddings, bat mitzvahs etc.

It makes me wonder what’s the next “new world” behavior (or “Scarlet P”) and how as marketers can we make sure we are prepared for these rapidly shifting trends?

Perhaps one way to be prepared is to do a “scarlet P” audit.

Take a look at our brands through the lens of wanton wastefulness- both in terms of literal environmental waste (e.g packaging, renewable materials, energy sources etc.) and perceived financial wastefulness (e.g. how does usage of this product or service appear to others in a more frugally chic world?).

This requires objectivity and also a bit of forward projection. You need to imagine that current trends will be exaggerated and that seemingly benign products and services may soon be under scrutiny.

Better to take inventory now and get ahead of the curve.

One result of this kind of audit is to re-engineer products and services.

Although I would be careful that your claims are genuine and don’t appear like a marketing gimmick. The recently launched Ziploc evolve sandwich bags struck a sour note with me. They’re made with less plastic, wind power, and come in bio-degradable packaging. But some how it feels off. (Maybe it’s the lower case “e” in the evolve name). Rather than launching a separate SKU, I think Ziploc’s efforts would feel more authentic if they just made this change automatically on all their products because it’s the right thing to do. Not because green is suddenly chic.

I know it’s a tough one to call. Sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Hmm…that makes me think of Hester Prynne and that other scarlet letter.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

What’s the next “Scarlet P”?

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Julie is the Founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and corporations build stronger, more profitable brands.


  1. About this hyper-sensitivity to the use of plastic bags…

    Screw ’em.

    Wait til there is an empassioned outcry over all these frayed, stained and torn canvas bags overflowing Fresh Kills. People will be nostalgic for the good old plastic bag, which, by the way, compress to about one millilitre of volume when it begins its leisurely, thousand year decay.

    And not to rant, but if I see one more self-righteous, newly-minted enivronmentally conscious asshat load there canvas bags into the back of an SUV I may slash their tires on the spot.

    Enjoyed the piece. Keep it up.

  2. I like to take the approach of “I help out where I can”. I am happy to use a reusable bag and even carry around one of the fold up ones from the Container Store in my purse for grocery store surprise runs–but there are certain times when those good old plastic bags come in handy to have around (like to take out the recycling in your home when it fills up, or for putting dirty clothes in when you are on vacation…). So, all in all, I think it just depends on what kind of re-user you are. If you are a canvas carrier, good for you, and if you are a plastic bag recycler–that’s fine as well! As far as the next Scarlet P…I think it should be aerosol containers. Despite how dangerous they are for the environment, people are still spritzing on the aquanet!

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