The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

What if Reusable Cotton Totes Aren’t Actually Eco-Friendly?

My love for reusable totes might actually be a problem.

Yes, reusable totes are lightweight, easy, and elegant. For many New Yorkers (and progressives in general) they are status symbols.

These bags are my humblebrags. They tell the world that I’m not fancy, that I use what I have around, and also that I live the sustainable lifestyle. Personally, I have no interest in a quilted Chanel purse, or anything with an interlocking V and L. To me, designer label bags say, “I dropped a bunch of money on this because a marketing campaign told me to.” No, I would rather slip my wallet, keys, and water bottle into a slim, black tote with a logo from a favorite eco brand. I want my bags to have life-affirming messages like, “Be Beautiful, Be Yourself” (ABC Carpet & Home) instead of logos.

Who says sustainability costs more? These totes are given to me for free! And they’re washable!

But I’m starting to wonder: Are they actually eco-friendly? Because… I have a lot of them.

I get them with every purchase from an eco-friendly store, and at every promotional event for a sustainable brand. Sometimes if I shop online, my sustainable fashion purchases come inside them instead of plastic polybags. (In fact, some brands take their products out of the plastic polybag from the factory and put them in cotton totes for shipment to the customer.) They’ve taken over all the hooks in my hallway and often can be found strewn about the living room, where I’ve tossed them when I come home. Despite my adept organizing and purging skills, I still have dozens. My husband recently took a reusable bag, stuffed it with reusable bags, and then hid it all somewhere in the apartment, to prove that I won’t miss them. But more continue to find their way into our home.

I know that I am not a typical consumer. I have all these bags because as a blogger I am forever attending events at which brands put their gifts in reusable bags, or I’m receiving free samples for testing inside a branded bag. But I bet you have a bunch, too.

So, I dug into the issue for you. Are reusable tote bags actually saving the planet?

Are Reusable Totes More Sustainable Than a Purse?

We could look at the sustainability of reusable totes a few ways. The most optimistic way is as a replacement for a typical purse.

There is some debate as to whether vegan leather is more or less sustainable than real leather. (Short take: if leather is a truly a byproduct of meat production, which it almost always is, then I personally would prefer a longer-lasting real leather product than a plastic, less durable product.) But when comparing real or faux leather to pure cotton? There’s no contest.

Cotton is a plant product, and will eventually biodegrade, unlike vegan leathers. Unlike most leather, it’s not processed using heavy metals like chromium. And then we should also mention the zippers, rivets, feet and other metal pieces in a typical purse, of which a tote has none. According to Kering’s 2017 Environmental Profit & Loss report, the material that their brands use that has the biggest negative impact on the environment is leather, followed by animal fibers and metals in equal measure. Plant fibers have a comparatively tiny impact. Totes are also much lighter to ship, leading to fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Plus, not all totes are made in the U.S., but they can be, using organic cotton grown and milled in the U.S., which saves on emissions for shipping. You won’t find many leather or vegan leather purses made in the U.S. — they’re usually made in Asia, often under dubious labor and environmental conditions.

When reusable totes fall apart, you can cut it into rags to use around the home, or even ostensibly throw them in the compost pile. You can’t do that with an old purse.

No, a cotton tote won’t last as long as a real leather artisan-made purse — probably two years with heavy use versus ten. But, with the fast fashion cycle being what it is, two years might be plenty long for a typical consumer.

So, if you buy fewer conventional purses because have your favorite cotton tote instead, amazing. The environment wins. In this case.

Are Reusable Totes More Sustainable Than Plastic Bags?

I recently found myself in a position at a pop-up where two designers were simultaneously trying to give me reusable totes with my purchase. I already had my reusable bag with me (a nylon Chico bag that goes into a small stuff sack that I’ve had since November of 2017) and I didn’t need or want another tote. It took me saying no four times (and throwing my husband under the bus saying he would divorce me if I brought home more tote bags) before they reluctantly let it go.

According to several studies, you would need to use a cotton tote anywhere from 131 times to 20,000 times to make up for its higher footprint as compared to a plastic bag. That’s because it takes more resources — water, greenhouse gas emissions, chemicals — to grow, harvest, mill, weave, sew, print and ship a thick cotton bag to you than it does to manufacture and ship a lightweight plastic bag to you.

Of course, these lifecycle studies don’t usually take into account the end-of-life aspect. The same thing that makes plastic bags more eco-friendly to ship — their super light weight — also means they blow right into the ocean and rivers, choking wildlife and breaking into small bits of microplastic and soaking up toxins, which fish and then we eventually ingest. Cotton totes don’t do that.

So, would you rather kill whales visibly and quickly by feeding them plastic bags? Or slowly and invisibly through ocean warming and acidification? I know, it’s a silly question. Neither?

Even when I thought that I needed to use a cotton tote 131 times to do my shopping to make it worth it environmentally, I knew that I probably wasn’t going to achieve that magic number. I would have to have only one cotton tote that I used every three days for a year. I have 20 of them, and I only use them on weekends.

As for 20,000 uses? LOL.

Looking at it this way, it suddenly becomes clear what a silly idea it is for eco retailers to put their wares in cotton totes and give them to shoppers. Yes, if it’s a rental company, definitely use reusable shipping bags that customers can ship stuff back in. But don’t put each new retail order in another new bag!  We all already have more than enough.

As one researcher has pointed out, a lot of people reuse plastic bags as trashcan liners. So if you ban plastic shopping bags completely, then people order thicker trash bags to use, and so overall plastic consumption doesn’t decline very much. That makes me wonder: do people also buy more heavyweight reusable bags at the store when they realize they’ve forgotten theirs? Apparently, it’s better to put a fee or tax on plastic bags, so that people can pay for them if they really want them, but will only get them if they need them.

More likely, the glut of reusable totes flows into our secondhand clothing system. Since they’re cotton, they’re either cut into wiping rags, or they end up in those giant bales of old clothing that get dumped on Ghana, overwhelming their waste collection system. Or maybe they’re sent to Rwanda, which completely banned plastic bags and searches people at the border to ensure they’re not smuggling them in. There’s a poetic thought, but I have zero evidence for that.

It’s clear the answer is to just buy, use, and accept fewer bags, no matter what they’re made of: leather, pleather, plastic, polyester, or cotton. Retailers and brands: don’t assume that I want your cotton tote, or that it’s the eco-friendly choice for swag. I don’t. It isn’t. Find another more clever way to promote yourself. Better yet, don’t give me swag at all! And for shipping, get your factory to use either plant-based biodegradable polybags, or polybags made with recycled content.

So, are cotton totes good for the environment? No. Are they better for the environment than regular purses? Yes. Are they better for the environment than plastic bags? Only if you use yours hundreds of times until it falls apart, and then you turn it into rags that you use until they too fall to pieces. Only then are they the sustainable choice.

Dear readers, do you use your reusable bags as purses? Tell me in the comments. 


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