"The Cotton Tote Crisis" reads the headline of an article published by The New York Times in August of this year, which has since gone viral. Accompanying it is a header image of a clothesline full of cotton tote bags belonging to a single person.
I don't know about you, but that could very well be a representation of how many cotton tote bags I've accumulated over the past decade. Most times, they're thrust upon me—either because they come free with any purchase in the vein of A.P.C.'s minimalist branded totes (A.P.C. now has reformatted this and the bags are now made from recycled plastic bottles), or they're simply part of the packaging neatly covering an online purchase. Then there are the occasional tote bags I get from museums (who goes to The Met without getting one?) or brands the likes of Holiday Boileau and JW Anderson because of their designs.
But as that article reiterated, cotton tote bags are now part of the problem. In actuality, they've become part of the problem since at least 2011. The article in question bases its arguments generated from a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, which found that a cotton tote bag needs to be used at least 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production. In comparison, a regular plastic bag needs to only be reused once.
Additionally, an even earlier 2011 study by the UK's Environment Agency concluded that plastic bags had the lowest environmental impacts as compared to a variety of other bags, including those made from cotton. The study involved assessing each type of bag based on nine different categories, of which plastic bags excelled in eight of them.
What we often fail to realise is that overconsumption of anything—whether it's tagged as 'eco-conscious' or not—is hardly ever a positive.
So why the renewed uproar? The conversation surrounding sustainability and climate change is louder now than it was 10 years ago. And we're beginning to better ascertain if more 'natural' options are indeed as better as we've been taught they were. As humans, we often pride ourselves at making small changes because we've been conditioned to think that any small change could result in incremental improvements. And that's not untrue; it takes a collective effort for significant change to occur.
But when it comes to consumption, what we often fail to realise is that overconsumption of anything—whether it's tagged as 'eco-conscious' or not—is hardly ever a positive. When a cotton bag is being produced, natural resources are used up and toxins in the form of chemical dyes and pesticides would often end up being released into the environment as part of the process. Multiply that by the number of brands and corporations heralding the use of cotton tote bags as a way to seem more sustainable, and us consumers buying into that—therein lies the problem.
Single-use anything is the main culprit. What we can do now is ensure that whatever we have on hand and in whatever material that it's made from, is used until it simply can't be reused any longer.
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It's virtually impossible to use one cotton tote bag every day for the next 54 years in order for it to outweigh the impacts of its production. And I certainly wouldn't want to live longer than that for the number of cotton tote bags I have on hand. Now that we have conclusive studies that they're not as great as they're supposed to be, it's on us to stop adding on to our collections.
Fashion's great at surviving and making the best out of such 'adversities' anyway. You never know, there may soon be a secondary market for branded cotton tote bags…