Brands asking us to buy paper bags aren’t the monsters you think they are

Brands asking us to buy paper bags aren’t the monsters you think they are

We need to cut down on plastic waste and a simple solution to brands charging Rs30 for paper shopping bags is to bring your own from home.
Updated 31 Mar, 2023

Sought after celebrity makeup artist Babar Zaheer shared on Thursday a story on his Instagram account, expressing his displeasure that fashion brand Cross Stitch was charging customers for paper bags.

His story was then shared as a post by Diva Magazine’s Instagram account, and the audience had much to say about it in the comment section.

Many pointed out that it isn’t just Cross Stitch that’s doing this — it’s becoming a retail industry-wide practice.

There were debates on which brand started this ‘trend’ in Pakistan and a large section of the commenters seemed to consider it a money-making gimmick by the brands to ‘rob’ customers by first charging exorbitant amounts for their products and then topping that up with a surcharge for shopping bags.

Some suggested that this represented a lack of courtesy. They said it was better to carry your purchase in your hands rather than paying for the paper bag. Because, of course, after paying thousands for an outfit, paying Rs30 for a bag is treachery.

Angry commenters felt any fast-fashion house that ‘influences’ other brands to also charge for bags is akin to a dirty fish dirtying the rest of their aquatic companions. Therefore, according to some, charging for a paper bag is a ‘dirty’ business practice.

Some people were not happy with the only viable option remaining — carrying clothing or grocery items in your hands. Understandably, that would be quite a juggling act, and a sight to behold, carrying potatoes and onions in the two hands humankind is blessed with.

If we saw customers carrying grocery items on their heads it would make for quite a funny spectacle.

Some people also went as far as asking why they should pay a business Rs30 for a bag when the same money could instead be given to a “poor orphan” begging on the streets. It is heartwarming to see how much shoppers care about those who are not as blessed as them.

Among a sea of startling comments that showed a dire lack of knowledge about the environment among the general Pakistani public, there was someone (may God bless their soul) who asked a very pertinent question, albeit sarcastically:

The answer is YES. The idea is exactly that. Bring your own bag, for the Earth’s sake!

As this sensible person (who I’d like to thank for comment, the likes of which were difficult to find in the comments section) pointed out — the idea here is to promote bringing your own reusable bag from home, not for brands to trick you into paying them more.

This is exactly how retail businesses in the west are trying to discourage the use of single-use plastic. If you’ve been living under a rock, I’d do the needful and highlight that the world is currently facing a lot of plastic pollution.

While plastic may be recyclable, it is not always recycled, especially plastic bags used by shoppers. They are added to dirt plies, fly around cities, become eye sores, and when dumped into the ocean, become the cause of death for marine life.

Microplastics have already become part of our food chain — when they enter the ocean or the soil — and are present in the air we breathe. It is believed that their over presence in our atmosphere may be harmful to our health. Hence the wave of companies pushing to replace single-use plastic with paper bags.

Maybe a couple of years ago we could all pretend that global warming was not a real threat to our planet, But we can hardly continue to do that when the damage is staring us in the face right here in Pakistan. We witnessed the most devastating floods in decades which cost thousands of people their lives and livelihoods, and put a huge dent in our already struggling economy.

In a world where weather patterns are changing and becoming even more unpredictable, where glaciers are melting, rivers are running dry, temperatures are soaring in Asia and winters getting harsher in Europe, where deserts are experiencing non-seasonal rains and rainy areas are witnessing unusually long dry spells, we cannot continue to expect that we will not pay environmental taxes for human activity — such as paying for paper bags when we shop.

It is also important to point out that paper bags are more expensive to manufacture as they are made from trees, more expensive to ship as they are heaver, and more expensive to store. Making paper bags is also costlier for the environment as they do not just involve the cutting down of trees but need about four times more water than plastic bags.

Therefore, customers are charged a certain price for them. On the other hand, plastic bags, which have traditionally been given to consumers free of charge, use less resources to be produced. It would be beneficial for us all to understand that that when we pay for a paper bag, we are essentially paying an environment tax. And if you don’t want to pay that, or do juggling theatrics while carrying your anday and double roti in your hands, then bring your own bag!

This is not some kind of ‘trend’ that is growing in Pakistan and no Pakistani brand has started it as a ‘dirty money making tactic’ — it is a common practice in many western countries where governments are encouraging brands to avoid the use of plastic, and even outright banning single-use plastic bags. Slowly, nations in other parts of the world are evolving and making it a part of their lifestyle to carry their own reusable bags each time they step out of the house, whether it is for groceries, clothes or homeware shopping. You can carry these bags in your handbag — folded to make them super tiny — your backpack or in the trunk of your car so that you can make your small contribution to reducing your carbon footprint every single day.

That way, the Rs30 that so many find so hard to pay, won’t have to be paid, and can instead be used to help the poor orphans, as someone had suggested.

Clothing brands that encourage fast fashion by introducing different trends every season and new styles to purchase every week are doing that at a heavy cost to the world we live in — from harmful emissions and waste during their production to an excessive use of water and at the end of it all, their products making their way to landfills. As customers, we participate in that by rushing to buy the latest trends and trying to not repeat clothes. It is about time Pakistani consumers pause to wonder what kind of a planet we intend to leave behind for our children instead of crying about paying for a paper bag whose cost makes up 0.002% of the price of the lawn outfit they have purchased from a fancy fashion house.

Some commenters added to the conversation by saying that when businesses charge for bags with their logos, they are essentially asking consumers to pay for their advertising as carrying around a bag with a logo is like a business advertisement. Of course, I agree that is something warranting a separate debate. Law-making bodies can consider whether businesses should be allowed to charge for bags with logos.

Governments can also consider allowing businesses to charge only a given price for a bag to ensure customers are not having to pay an unjustified amount and unduly adding to business profits. Businesses should also always ask the customer if they want to purchase a paper bag instead of punching that into the bill without prior consent. This will give the customer the opportunity to make an informed purchase, or use their own reusable bag.

Here’s to hoping that all agents in the economy, which includes businesses, consumers and the government, play their own part when it comes to taking care of the planet, because there is no planet B. When we make changes in how we operate as businesses, or when governments introduce laws to create a better environment, it is essential that the public be included in the discussion so that the change the world needs can be made with the most awareness and least resistance.

As consumers, we can play our part by spending some time and energy to understand why investing in our own biodegradable bags is a service to the future generations who will inhabit this world after we are gone. After all, we all live on this planet.

Lecturer turned blogger, Mahvish Ahmed is a mama in boots, trotting through Europe, fighting the rain, catching trams and sipping warm coffee if/when her toddler naps. Find her on Instagram here.