Packaging and Cultural Norms

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this picture, taken by a friend of mine at a Starbucks in Busan, South Korea.

The picture struck me as odd: why does a banana need a plastic wrapper? Seems unnecessary. But, as I pointed out at the time, Starbucks is a pretty smart company — they don’t do much that isn’t well thought out.

So I contacted Jim Hanna, Director of Environmental Affairs at Starbucks. He offered to find out the answer for me. And the answer: cultural norms. Apparently, according to Starbucks Korea (via Hanna) cultural norms in Korea dictate that “premium” produce be individually packaged.

Now, it’s easy enough to understand a company wanting — both for ethical and for sheer marketing reasons — wanting to be sensitive to local norms. We don’t want multinationals barging into countries and simply assuming that everything will be the same as “back home.”

But surely “cultural norms” aren’t always going to trump. After all, for years it was a cultural norm in North America to drive a big, big car and not to care about gas mileage. For years, it was a cultural norm to toss tin cans into the garbage, rather than recycling them. Those aren’t the kind of norms that deserve respect; there are good arguments against those norms, arguments that have by and large been persuasive.

Norms can and do change. Sometimes what it takes is a company that’s big enough to nudge cultural practices in a better direction, and to lead by example.

5 comments so far

  1. Adnan Ali on

    “Norms can and do change. Sometimes what it takes is a company that’s big enough to nudge cultural practices in a better direction, and to lead by example.”

    Even to the detriment of the bottom-line?

    If taking away the wrapper means a decrease in sales/profit, then what would be better: to take away the product all together, or to go back to the wrapper, or keep the product without the wrapper and incur losses?

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Within reason, yes, even to the detriment of the bottom line. A company has obligations beyond the bottom line, though I tend to be a moderate in terms of how extensive such obligations are.

    Note also that in some (maybe not all) circumstances & jurisdictions, waste (in particular, garbage) is a negative externality, i.e., a source of economic inefficiency.

    Of course, this particular case might also be short-term pain for long-term gain: packaging, after all, costs money, and if they can rebuild sales they’ll save money in the long run.


  3. rob on

    Great post. Do you have any idea of what the rationale is behind that cultural norm? Why is premium produce individually packaged?

  4. Roughstock Jess on

    Further evidence that sustainable practices requires public education. Starbucks could remove the plastic wrap, bucking cultural norms and thereby incurring decreased sales. Or, Starbucks could identify why Koreans prefer their “premium” fruit in individual wrappers and implement a marketing campaign to change that perception (or, even better, work with a local social change organization to conduct the campaign).

    Let’s say it’s an issue of cleanliness, for example. Why not serve their bananas from a sealed “hygienic,” display case? In other words, figure out the “why,” and you can find an appropriate solution that both appeals to the consumer and that’s more sustainable. We need to stop seeing these situations as either/or scenarios.

  5. DarryleHuffman on

    Norms do change over time. Sometimes can push the nudge just to far and leave everybody wondering why they did the action or make the product less than desirable. One of the best examples of this is when Coke changed their recipe in the late 80’s. It did not take long for them to switch back to the original recipe and call the product Coke Classic. The damage they incurred has yet to be determined.

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