Friends, I’m sorry to say it, but your tote bag isn’t as sustainable as you think it is. In fact, the more tote bags you have, the worse it may actually be for the environment. So, let’s dive right in.

This week, the New York Times published a deep dive into how our love for cotton tote bags (sustainable! and cute!) is fuelling another environmental crisis (not cute at all!).

However, it’s a little deeper than ‘you own a tote bag and therefore you’re a bad person’, so buckle up and take a deep breath before you start asking things like ‘what am I supposed to do, carry my groceries with my tiny hands?’

The Good, The Bag and The Ugly

According to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, organic tote owners need to be using their bag 20,000 times to properly offset the “impact of production”.

So essentially, you’ll need to use one (1) bag every day for 54 years to achieve this. When you start to think about how many tote bags you own, you also begin to realise just how impossible it is to efficiently make the most of them all.

tote bags

The simple answer here is to use one or two tote bags in your entire life and you’ll be fine, but there’s more nuance to the topic than just this simple stat.

Another thing to keep in mind when purchasing a cotton tote bag is that 20% of the world’s cotton still comes from the forced labour camps in the Xinjiang region in China, where the Uyghur Muslim minority population are being ethnically cleansed and forced into slavery.

On top of this is the water insensitiveness of cotton production, and just how difficult it is to actually toss your totes ethically due to most cute logos and designs on the bags being made with PVC-based dye, which is unrecyclable.

But how exactly did we get here, where everyone and their nonna has a collection of totes to take shopping?

Well according to the New York Times, this is through brands capitalising on the ‘trendiness’ of tote bags and pumping them out like no tomorrow with cute logos and pics. Basically, if a brand can turn you into a walking billboard under the guise of ethical consumption, it will.

The article also uses the example of the Gossip Girl reboot being a good example of how tote bags have almost become fashion statements in popular culture today, which further encourages the purchase of these luxury-but-not-quite items.

gossip girl reboot tote
Gotta keep the single unread book close to my side at all times. (Getty Images)

However, you may be thinking, ‘this all sounds pretty fkn awful, can’t we just have nice things in peace?’ You’d have a point there, as there’s more to the discussion to be had than just a simple a good thing being unmasked as something evil like some Scooby-Doo villain.

(Should I) Secure the Bag Sis? An Issue of Mountains and Molehills

When you take the magnifying glass away from Newtown shoppers and their smexy branded tote bags, and take a look at the broader picture, you’ll immediately realise that there are far worse things occurring in the world, that are far more damaging to the environment.

Companies are mining for fossil fuels and drilling into the ocean, so how is your two-year-old tote comparable to the bigger issues?

Thing is, it isn’t. It isn’t at all. Mega-rich companies and mining magnates are always going to do far more irreversible damage than Amanda and her ten tote bags ever will. The point here is that tote bags aren’t exactly the pinnacle of sustainability that they’ve been made out to be.

tote bags

The mass-production of branded tote bags has become an environmental issue in and of itself, which is something to keep in mind when purchasing them, especially when you already own a few. The tote bag isn’t cancelled, it just shouldn’t be overly revered.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while a single non-organic tote bags and 7000 LDPE plastic bags have the same amount of emissions, there’s still the upside of not polluting oceans and landfills. A small win, to be sure.

In summary, you can keep your cotton tote. Just make sure it becomes your favourite tote, and that you use it over and over to make the most out of your purchase.

There’s a lot of negatives behind the scenes of cotton tote bag production, but the same goes for most things that we consume under capitalism. Just some food for thought next time you want to add an Aesop tote to your order of parsley seed antioxidant serum.

Image: Getty Images / Artit Wongpradu