True Gripes: Bags of trouble: Bring back the rustle of brown paper

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The Independent Online
Shopping in the West End, I frequently find myself invoking the spirit of HM Bateman.

In the past I have featured as The Woman Who Asked For A Size 16 in Whistles and The Woman Who Asked For Cream in Cranks (the two episodes are not unrelated), but this weekend I was the irritable cynosure of all eyes as The Woman Who Asked For A Bag At The Body Shop.

The recycled brown paper sachet, impregnated with essential oil of worthiness, was handed over with the resigned disapproval of a druggist doling out methadone to a hopeless junkie. For a few panicky seconds, I considered explaining that I needed the bag as material for an installation of ecological art at the Whitechapel Gallery, or that my dying grandmother, in a final moment of unbridled decadence, had requested one last evocative rustle of brown paper as a reminder of a happier age.

Instead, I high-tailed it out of there before Anita Roddick herself could

be summoned to lecture me on my wastefulness.

Nor is this bag business restricted to establishments with a high ideological profile. I once stood behind a group of children, obviously on a school trip to London, in Harrods.

One boy, having bought three overpriced gewgaws in the gift shop, requested three bags, to be snootily informed that it was 'against policy to give away 'free' bags'.

No doubt this policy is informed by the highest motives of resource management, but when it comes to denying a child the dubious prestige of presenting gifts from 'the top people's store', it seems unnecessarily miserable. Maybe the sales assistant was afraid the child would grow up to be a dangerous bag-abuser, mugging old ladies to finance his uncontrollable polythene dependency. Maybe he was just a niggardly snob.

Most irritating of all is the phenomenon of the 're-usable bag that has recently infected the major supermarket chains.

At Marks & Spencer's food halls, requests for a strong bag will be countered with the information that 're-usable bags cost 15p. In vain you point out that while you do not have extensive future plans for this bag, you would none the less like to get your extra-virgin oil and raspberry vinegar home without the arse falling out of the hopelessly flimsy non-re-usable variety and creating an impromptu vinaigrette on Oxford Street.

How many people can honestly say that they never leave home without a few re-usable carrier bags secreted about their person in case they feel like nipping in for a couple of bottles of wine on the way back from work? In marketing terms, or so I am told, the 're-usable bag is a prime example of perceived added value.

Added value? Call me old fashioned, but I would have thought one of the quintessential values of a store carrier bag was the adequate containment of goods purchased. It is like saying that for a small premium, you can have an umbrella that will actually keep you dry, or a bottle of gin that gets you drunk.

And please don't give me the one about ecological responsibility. Bags with all the carrying strength of a wet tissue are fine for people who drive to and from the supermarket, polluting the city streets with noxious exhaust fumes.

If grocery stores gave a twopenny-damn about the environment, they would not penalise non-driving customers by making them pay an average 60p extra a shopping trip.

It is profit, not the planet, that is at stake here.

And, as more and more shops are beginning to realise, the profit is in the bag.