Why understanding consumer behaviour is key to coffee cup reuse

The oceans are drowning in plastic. Children are taking to the streets to passionately protest the climate crisis. But nothing seems to change, certainly not at a pace that’s equable to the existential threat that’s upon us.

Changing people’s behaviours is hard. Even when faced with heart-breaking photos of birds and sea creatures’ stomachs stuffed with plastic, plastic consumption isn't reducing at a fast enough rate. For those of us who are passionate about sustainability, recycling, and reducing plastic, the slowness to change can be incredibly frustrating.

I imagine it’s frustration that prompted Boston Tea Party owner Sam Jones to stop the sale of single-use cups in all their branches last year. As he explained, "Lots of coffee chains are making pledges about how they plan to tackle cup waste in the future, but theirs is a future which is too far away".

It’s a brave and principled decision, particularly as Boston Tea Party are pretty much alone in their stance. None of the other UK coffee chains have yet to follow suit. But it’s a decision that has come at a cost to the business. In April the BBC reported that Boston Tea Party “has seen sales fall by £250,000 since it banned single use cups last summer”.

No doubt all the other coffee chains are benefiting as those consumers go elsewhere.

Before making such brave decision, I wondered if a better approach would have been to do as Costa are doing. While Costa are looking at recycling rather than reuse, they are taking steps to understand their consumers through research and then put solutions in place. 

Because unless you understand people’s behaviours  in this case why there is a reluctance to use reusable cups regularly  you cannot offer solutions to support and encourage people to buy their takeaway coffees in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

People have the best intentions but they do what is most convenient or flexible, that fits in with their lifestyle. I always carry a Loqi shopping bag in my handbag but I haven’t yet managed to find a reusable coffee cup that isn’t bulky nor have I created a habit around my coffee-buying. Instead my glass KeepCup  bought with good intentions — sits on my office desk and is rarely used.

It’s clearly important, then, for companies to do research to understand people’s behaviours so they can make decisions that support those behaviours rather than put up barriers. As social anthropologists who study consumer behaviour, we start from the principle that designing products and services means beginning with your consumers.

Currently the main solution used by coffee chains is offering people a discount if they bring their own cups but as City to Sea said, "the discounts…aren't enough to address the issue".

The problem of disposable cups is not something one small company can solve on its own. Indeed Friends of the Earth stated, "the government needs to do more to help solve the problem”.

In the meantime, it’s a crying shame that Boston Tea Party’s principled, brave, defiant stance is costing them thousands. If only more companies would put the planet ahead of profits. But the 'coffee cup problem' is not one that is easily solved, certainly not without understanding consumer behaviours.

 

Postscript: At the Hay Festival, there is a reusable coffee cup system — buy a cup for £1, get £1 off your coffee, and then get your £1 back when you drop the cup back. The cups are washed and reused. Not everyone was using the system when we visited, unfortunately, but it is a start.

 

If you want to understand your consumers' behaviours and connect with them more deeply, contact Mundy & Anson today.

Image credits: Man in cafe by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash. Blue plastic cup by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash. Woman holding disposable cup by Alisa Anton on Unsplash. Photo of reusable cup at Hay Festival by Dawn Walter.