The rise of the cotton tote
According to this New York Times article, it was British designer Anya Hindmarch who “put the reusable cotton bag on the map” in 2007 with her I’m Not a Plastic Bag tote. It went viral, with eighty thousand people queuing to buy the bag on launch day. It was not long before cotton totes appeared everywhere from high end fashion brands to your local farmer’s market.
The cotton tote has also come to be associated with class and luxury, with customers seeing it as an integral part of the experience of buying from the brand. Luxury skin care brand Aēsop told the New York Times that many customers actively contact them to complain when their purchase does not come in its usual cotton bag.
The problem with it
Many people think they are making a better choice when they purchase a cotton tote, because it is reusable. However, the production of cotton is extremely water and labour intensive – a 2018 study found that one cotton tote needs to be reused 20,0000 times (i.e. every day for 54 years) before its impact could be offset.
Cotton is also not easily recyclable, as it cannot be composted or placed in a residential recycling bin and needs to be taken somewhere that does textile recycling. Even if it makes its way there, a percentage of the cotton tote is often thrown away as the dyes or prints on the bag are not recyclable. The last step is recycling the cotton, which is almost as energy intensive as making it in the first place.
How can we make better choices?
The first thing to know is that cotton is still better than plastic, since plastic never biodegrades, pollutes our oceans and uses greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
Many fashion brands are seeking out replacement materials, such as hemp, recycled plastics, or using only recycled and organic cotton (which is free from pesticides that harm the environment).
Other companies are also updating their shopping platforms to allow customers to opt out of receiving the complimentary cotton tote. While the cotton tote does add a feeling of indulgence to our purchases, choosing not to receive one is still the best solution as it is the one that is the easiest for us to action.
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