Totes In Perspective

The original Anya Hindmarch tote, sold at Whole Foods for $15 back in 2007, that kick-started the anti-plastic-bag campaign. Lars Klove for The New York Times

It started one way.

Ms. Hindmarch’s updated version, made from recycled plastic. Suzie Howell for The New York Times

And then it evolved. Now we have to think again about the bags we use to carry things in:

The Cotton Tote Crisis

You can get cotton bags pretty much everywhere. How did an environmental solution become part of the problem?

A laundry line of cotton totes accumulated by a single person since the race to replace plastic began. Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Recently, Venetia Berry, an artist in London, counted up the free cotton tote bags that she had accumulated in her closet. There were at least 25.

There were totes from the eco-fashion brand Reformation and totes from vintage stores, totes from Soho House, boutique countryside hotels and independent art shops. She had two totes from Cubitts, the millennial-friendly opticians, and even one from a garlic farm. “You get them without choosing,” Ms. Berry, 28, said.

Cotton bags have become a means for brands, retailers and supermarkets to telegraph a planet-friendly mind-set — or, at least, to show that the companies are aware of the overuse of plastic in packaging. (There was a brief lull in cotton tote use during the pandemic, when there were fears that reusable bags could harbor the virus, but they are now fully back in force.)

“There’s a trend in New York right now where people are wearing merch: carrying totes from local delis, hardware stores or their favorite steakhouse,” said the designer Rachel Comey. (See: the reboot of “Gossip Girl” for pop culture proof.)

So far, so earth-friendly? Not exactly. It turns out the wholehearted embrace of cotton totes may actually have created a new problem.

An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production, according to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. That equates to daily use for 54 years — for just one bag. According to that metric, if all 25 of her totes were organic, Ms. Berry would have to live for more than a thousand years to offset her current arsenal.

“Cotton is so water intensive,” said Travis Wagner, an environmental science professor at the University of Maine. It’s also associated with forced labor, thanks to revelations about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. And figuring out how to dispose of a tote in an environmentally low-impact way is not nearly as simple as people think.

Read the whole article here.

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