Bag Your Pardon: Despite Fines, Retailers Still Charge for Carry Bags

Extra charges over carry bags has been an ongoing battle between retailers and consumers. The practice goes back to the time when plastic carry bags slowly started disappearing from stores after the notification of the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. The Rule, only for plastic bags, soon became the norm for all carry bags. What’s right or wrong? texfash.com explores.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • All cases of carry bag fines can be traced to the 2011 Rules. even though those were specific to plastic carry bags, and not non-plastic carry bags.
  • Charging extra for a carry bag and not giving it free of cost instead despite the bag displaying the branding of the company for publicity is an unfair trade practice.
  • Fines don't work because they are not deterrent enough. Moreover, the loophole in the law remains, and will remain till the matter reaches higher courts of the land.
All carry bags before 2011 were given to customers for free, but now retailers—especially chains and brands—now got a new heaven-sent marketing tool: give carry bags, but with a brand identity. Besides, there was money to be made.
Bag to Differ All carry bags before 2011 were given to customers for free, but now retailers—especially chains and brands—now got a new heaven-sent marketing tool: give carry bags, but with a brand identity. Besides, there was money to be made. StockSnap / Pixabay

Various courts in India have time and again fined retailers after they charged customers for carry bags. However, the practice carries on unabated, and with impunity.

In the latest indictment of note, premium leather accessories firm Esbeda was fined ₹35,000 after one of its stores charged a customer ₹20 for a carry bag over and above the price paid by her for an item bought from the outlet.

The additional District Consumer Redressal Forum for Mumbai suburban district imposed the fine on Esbeda based on a complaint filed by Reema Chawla. The court asked the company to refund the ₹20 paid by the complainant in addition to paying her ₹3,000 for litigation expenses and ₹10,000 as compensation for the mental agony caused. The court also asked the brand to deposit ₹25,000 into the Consumer Welfare Fund of the consumer forum.

Chawla had purchased an Esbeda bag on 4 August 2019 worth ₹1,690 from the company’s Kurla store and was charged an additional ₹20 for the carry bag. She claimed that on pursuing the issue, her complaint went ignored by the store manager. Chawla argued that the company had indulged in unfair trade practices by charging customers for carrying bags that had its brand name.

The Esbeda store manager was served a notice but did not turn up for the hearing, following which the bench decided the matter ex parte. The bench comprising chairman RG Wankhade and member SV Kalaal said that charging extra for a carry bag and not giving it free of cost instead despite the bag displaying the branding of the company for publicity was an unfair trade practice.

The court was clear in its verdict.

All over India: Complaints and fines galore

The earliest big-time example of a fine came in April 2019 when a Chandigarh consumer forum imposed a penalty of ₹9,000 on footwear major Bata India Ltd for making a consumer pay ₹3 for a paper bag. The complainant was Dinesh Prasad Raturi, who had bought a pair of shoes from a Bata outlet in February that year. The store charged him ₹402, inclusive of the paper bag charges.

Raturi complained that by levying the paper bag charge, Bata was endorsing its brand on the bag—which was not justified. The forum did not entertain Bata's pleas that there had been no deficiency in service on its part and ordered the company to refund the cost of the bag (₹3) and also pay for the litigation charges of ₹1,000. Bata was also directed to pay a compensation of ₹3,000 to the customer for the mental agony caused by the deficiency in services and ordered it to pay an additional ₹5,000 in the legal aid account of the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.

Bata India had contended that the customer was charged for the purpose of environmental safety. The court, however, had a different take altogether on the subject: “There is unfair trade practice on the part of Bata India in compelling the complainant to purchase the carry bag worth ₹3 and if Bata India is an environmental activist, it should have given the same to the complainant free of cost” and “it was for gain of the company.” The court concluded: “By employing [an] unfair trade practice, opposite party (Bata) is minting [a] lot of money from all customers.”

This incident was from 2019, but the real story had begun eight years ago when plastic carry bags slowly started disappearing from stores after the notification of the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. All cases of carry bag fines can be traced to the 2011 Rules. even though those were specific to plastic carry bags, and not non-plastic carry bags.

The element that is germane to the subject at hand was Rule 10 on the 'Explicit pricing of carry bags' which stated: “No carry bags shall be made available free of cost by retailers to consumers. The concerned municipal authority may by notification determine the minimum price for carry bags depending upon their quality and size which covers their material and waste management costs in order to encourage their re-use so as to minimize plastic waste generation.”

But the 2011 Rules were explicitly about plastic material, and so #10 would have been about plastic carry bags alone and nothing else. Retailers, however, have always interpreted #10 to insist that no carry bag could be given away for free. Yet, #3(b) of the same 2011 Rules had already defined what a carry bag meant as categorically as possible: “’Carry bags’ mean bags made from any plastic material, used for the purpose of carrying or dispensing commodities but do not include bags that constitute or form an integral part of the packaging in which goods are sealed prior to use].”

What #10 meant was that if any retailer were to give out plastic bags, those were to be charged unlike earlier when a plastic carry bag unequivocally meant a free carry bag. The sentiment behind the 2011 Rules were to dissuade plastic bag usage across India. That was all.

All carry bags before 2011 were given to customers for free, but now retailers—especially chains and brands—now got a new heaven-sent marketing tool: give carry bags, but with a brand identity. Besides, there was money to be made. Only that you didn't have to pay for promotion or carry out a branding exercise: you could instead charge the customer and extract the branding for free.

It took a while for the practice to catch on. It took still more time for the backlash, though it has been tepid at best. Now it’s a free for all.

Thahryamal Balchand (TMBC) in Jaipur is over 100 years old, and manufactures/exports/retails home textiles and clothing. Says TMBC partner Ishan Thahryamal: “Being a heritage and renowned home textile brand, customer centricity is top priority for us, and charging clients for carry bags is a big ‘no’—it seems just unethical.
Exquisitely Free Thahryamal Balchand (TMBC) in Jaipur is over 100 years old, and manufactures/exports/retails home textiles and clothing. Says TMBC partner Ishan Thahryamal: “Being a heritage and renowned home textile brand, customer centricity is top priority for us, and charging clients for carry bags is a big ‘no’—it seems just unethical." Thahryamal Balchand

Big Bazaar: A serial offender

There have been many similar cases in the last few years, with various courts across India imposing fines on retailers/brands. From D’Mart to More Retail, many big chains have been fined. But, one big name that has consistently figured in the list of offenders is Big Bazaar, the retail chain from the Future Group, once the darling of the pink papers in India. Lots of stores and chains have been fined, but even a cursory look at the list of cases will show that Big Bazaar has been almost notorious.

[Note: Big Bazaar was founded in 2001 by Kishore Biyani, the founder and chief executive of the parent company, the Future Group. In 2020, Big Bazaar was acquired by Reliance Retail, the retail division of the Reliance Industries. However, the deal was called off in April 2022 after Future's secured creditors voted against it.]

Take this case: in July 2020, a District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum in Chandigarh ordered Big Bazaar to pay ₹10,000 to the Consumer Legal Aid Account (for helping needy litigants) and ₹1,518 to a Panchukla resident for “wrongly charging” for an item. Baldev Raj had complained that a cashier at the Big Bazaar store in Industrial Area had charged him ₹18 for a cloth bag to carry items he had purchased there in March 2020. Big Bazaar representatives, however, pleaded that there were no wrong charges and that information about the price of the carry bag had been prominently displayed at the store. They contended that the store was not selling carry bags commercially and was only reimbursing itself for a part of the price incurred by it to produce such a bag.

The court, however, did not accept the arguments, and believed that charging for a bag amounted to an unfair trade practice and deficiency in service as it would have been very odd and inconvenient for the customer to carry the purchased items in his hands without a bag. “The opposite party has several stores across the country and in the above said manner made a lot of money, thus... forcing the gullible consumers to pay additionally for the carry bags (which) surely and certainly amounts to deficiency in service and... unfair trade practice,” it said. “The opposite party was being penalised for indulging in such activity, thereby causing not only loss, mental agony and physical harassment to the complainant, but also giving rise to undesirable litigation and thereby wasting the precious time of this Forum.” Big Bazaar has ordered to refund the complainant ₹18 for the bag; ₹1,000 as compensation for harassment and mental agony and ₹500 as litigation expenses.

In a matter of weeks, Big Bazaar was fined again. The Chandigarh District Consumer Commission directed it to pay a fine of ₹18,000 for charging ₹48 and ₹12 for carry bags from two city residents. Neha Sharma, who in August 2019 had purchased items worth ₹9,881 from the Big Bazaar outlet at Elante Mall had been charged ₹48 for two paper bags. She resisted and asked the cashier to refund the amount but to no avail. Preeti Kalia likewise was charged ₹12 each for two carry bags.

Big Bazaar made a similar plea as in the earlier case. The company said that through advertisements, posters and notices at prominent locations of the store, it had displayed that as a part of its responsible and environmentally conscious business policy, consumers were requested to carry their own bags and a separate amount would be charged in case a consumer wanted a carry bag.

The commission did not buy the argument, and instead remarked: “The opposite party (Big Bazar) had miserably failed to produce on record any cogent, convincing and reliable piece of evidence in the shape of any rules or instructions authorising it to levy charges additionally for the carry bag from the gullible consumers. In this backdrop, charges of such things (carry bags) cannot be separately foisted upon the consumers and the same would amount to unfair trade practice on the part of the OP.”

It directed Big Bazaar to refund the cost of the bags and pay ₹100 each to the complainants towards compensation for harassment and mental agony, besides ₹1,100 as litigation expenses for each. It also directed the company to deposit ₹5,000 in the Consumer Legal Aid Account for each complaint.

Big Bazaar, nevertheless, carried on undaunted. In July 2021, the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, Mohali, imposed a fine of ₹20,000 on the company for charging ₹10 for a carry bag. The complainant this time, Dinesh Vohra, had purchased eight items worth ₹992.73 in July 2019 from a Big Bazaar store. He had to pay ₹10 extra for the carry bag.

But only earlier in June, the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission in Chandigarh had directed Big Bazaar to pay a compensation of ₹100 to a consumer for charging ₹19 for a carry bag. Big Bazaar was also ordered to pay ₹1,100 as litigation cost to the consumer Niraj Kumar.

It is not that Big Bazaar has been fined only in Chandigarh for the same offence—it has drawn the ire of courts on the same allegations elsewhere as well. Except for the paltry fines, Big Bazaar never has had much to lose. The same time that a court could have taken to hear a case and impose a fine of ₹30,000 would have fetched Big Bazaar as much money from any of its popular outlets by sellings its carry bags. And it had roughly 300-odd outlets across the country all during this period.

Fines don't work because they are not deterrent enough. Moreover, the loophole in the law remains, and will remain till the matter reaches higher courts of the land.

But not all likely to charge

Then, there are others who do not charge for carry bags, and even go to the extent of insisting that the practice is unethical.

Thahryamal Balchand (TMBC) in Jaipur is over 100 years old, and manufactures/exports/retails home textiles and clothing. Says TMBC partner Ishan Thahryamal: “Being a heritage and renowned home textile brand, customer centricity is top priority for us, and charging clients for carry bags is a big ‘no’—it seems just unethical.

“It (charging customers for carry bags) is as irrational as selling a product that is incomplete. This usually happens when customers are unaware of some consumers rights, or some just choose to ignore it. Usually, the costs vary from ₹5 to ₹15 (in some cases even more). Unless a product requires special packaging, retailers should avoid charging for normal/plastic carry bags.”

TMBC leads by example—the company’s popular store uses high-grade cloth bags that are costlier to make and yet are eco-friendly compared to regular bags. These are given away at zero cost to customers. “The brands that do charge extra for carry bags just want to reduce their overheads because of the lack of consumer awareness among its customers.”

At the other end of the country is His N Hers, a boutique store in Guwahati. Its owner Bhaskardatta Goswami believes this (charging for bags) is done mostly by branded stores in malls. “They charge customers for carry bags on which the store or brand name is prominently printed. Customers are forced to advertise the store name at their own expense. This is just wrong.”

Sushil Poddar, President of the Confederation of West Bengal Trade Associations (CWBTA), is just as categorical: “We are always insisting to our retailer members about not charging anything for carry bags. Retailers or wholesalers associated with us do not charge, and we as an association oppose this. We have written to them to not charge. The consumer is always right. Why should they pay for a carry bag? We have also lodged complaints with the local authorities to stop this practice by retailers. How can they charge for a bag? If they do have to charge for the bag, increase the margin, but why charge for small things?”

 
 
  • Dated posted: May 10, 2022
  • Last modified: May 10, 2022