It’s a story that resonates with most shoppers. You buy it on a whim; and since it’s an unplanned purchase, you haven’t brought your shopping bag. This implies shelling out anywhere between Rs3 and Rs30 on the retailer’s carry bag, which displays the brand’s XL-sized logo.

Here’s the conundrum: Can retailers charge you for those bags, even if eco-friendly, or does the shopper becoming an unwitting brand ambassador count in such cases? Legal experts and consumer redressal fora are at the opposite ends of this dispute, with consumers left guessing.

The debate was reignited earlier this month when footwear major Bata India was slapped with a fine of Rs9,000 by a consumer forum in the north Indian city of Chandigarh. An angry customer filed a complaint after he was charged Rs3 for a paper bag.

The forum dismissed Bata’s argument that it was merely transferring the cost of using environment-friendly bags. “If Bata India is an environmental activist, it should have given the same to the complainant free of cost,” the forum noted, adding that, “it was the store’s duty to provide a free paper bag to the customer who had bought its product.”

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A revenue stream?
Like Bata, many popular Indian retailers—hypermarket chain BigBazaar, department store chain Shoppers Stop, and fashion retailer Pantaloons, to name a few—charge consumers for their eco-friendly carry bags.

To be sure, this practice is relatively new. Until a few years ago, many brands counted the cost of their carry bags (at the time, mostly made from plastic) as “overhead expenses,” and provided them free.

Things began to change in 2011 when India’s ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued the plastic waste (management and handling) rules. One of these rules states: “No (plastic) carry bags shall be made available free of cost by retailers to consumers.”

Soon, retailers began switching to the more expensive paper and cloth carry bags, but for a fee.

While the companies justified it as the price paid for being environmentally conscious, experts are not convinced.

“Rather than discouraging plastic bags, making carry bags available to buyers has now become more of a commercial exercise,” said Ashita Aggarwal, a professor of marketing at Mumbai’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. She estimates that large retailers with footfalls of, say, 1,000 customers a day and multiple stores across cities, can earn a significant amount every month by merely selling carry bags.

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As expected, retailers deny this. “Providing eco-friendly bags is an additional cost to the company. Most retailers subsidise or sell it on a cost-to-cost basis,” said a spokesperson for one such venture, requesting to remain anonymous.

Brand ambassadors
Revenue apart, many also point to the marketing benefits that brands accrue, when their logos are printed on the shopping bags.

“The practice is a classic example of deficient service as the consumer carrying a carry bag with the logo and name of the seller are essentially advertising the brand. So, why should she be charged for it?” asks N Chandramouli, CEO of Trust Research Advisory, a Mumbai-based market firm.

In fact, in October 2018, a consumer disputes redressal forum in the southern state of Kerala directed three leading retail stores to provide consumers with carry bags without any logos. The complainant contended that the advertisements on the carry bags he paid for amounted to an unfair trade practice.

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Legal opinion
Yet, can these orders from consumer forums withstand legal scrutiny? Experts don’t think so.

“A consumer ought to pay for anything and everything she purchases. Carry bag is not a part of the product and hence it’s charged for,” says Ashok K Aggarwal, managing partner at the New Delhi-based Mint Law Associates.

Most importantly, Aggarwal, added, “It’s not a forced purchase. There are no hidden charges, concealment of facts, breach of trust, or unfair practice adopted by the seller who declares the price of a carry bag up front. To buy or not to buy is a consumer’s decision.”

This suggests that the Chandigarh consumer forum’s order against Bata can be challenged.

Nevertheless, customers will be emboldened. “It (the order against Bata) will set a precedent for consumers to refuse to be charged for a bag. Even as different stakeholders promote a safe environment, the beneficiary has to be the consumer. Companies cannot say it will impact their bottom line,” argues Chandramouli. #KhabarLive