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So you think you’re tote-ally sustainable?

As the cobblestone streets of campus once again come alive with the familiar bustle of students beginning a fresh term, one cannot help but notice that the student body is not the only thing that has made an ample return. As I walked to my first class of the semester, I was struck not by the number of students around me, but rather by the overwhelming number of tote bags. It was like I was being followed, stalked, and haunted by totes. Although cotton tote bags have been a circulating trend for some time now replacing purses and backpacks alike, it has spiralled out of control, and these deemed ‘environmentally conscious’ bags pose a far greater dilemma than people are ready to face.  

Don’t get me wrong, I am no exception to this so-called “tote bag phenomenon.” I, too, am someone who has been manipulated into believing that choosing a reusable tote over plastic or paper is the more sustainable option. But naturally, like many things in our consumerist society, the well-intentioned movement rapidly became a fast-fashion trend. 

This isn’t to say that cotton totes are worse than plastic, it’s simply trading one form of harmful consumption for another. Data collected from Danish, U.K, and other studies on the environmental impact of different bags show that cotton tote bags have equally negative effects when compared to plastic and paper bags. Harvesting, processing, and transporting cotton requires a significant amount of energy, and uses vast amounts of water and land. They are also incredibly difficult to recycle and, as a result, one cotton tote “needs to be used 7,100 times to equal the environmental profile of a plastic bag,” according to Renee Cho, staff writer for the Columbia Climate School. 

From what I have gathered, the average person owns more than one tote, and surely, they are not getting 7,000+ uses out of each one. I know I’m not. I went through my own accumulation and alas—I counted twelve totes from different shops and markets, the most recent addition to my collection being the debut University of Edinburgh beige and blue tote. Look around you, I bet you can spot one! The University totes were distributed during freshers week and every event, society, and college seemed to have their own unique design. It seems uncharacteristically generous of any institution to give out so many free tokens, so why is nobody questioning the motive behind these bags? Why aren’t we acknowledging the broader landscape at play? The environment tends to pay the price for the things we get for “free.”

The surplus of these bags reflects overconsumption in our society. Mass produced mobile billboards; another advertising scheme to bring in more business and money-flow for brands. These organizations are hiding behind the facade of the “eco-friendly” tote, targeting a younger demographic who want to forge a more sustainable future who are unknowingly supporting a product that is contributing to the carbon footprint. It presents a kind of environmental irony since cotton totes invoke the illusion of planet-friendly intentions while allowing businesses to take advantage of people who are simply unaware of this reality. 

So, the next time you go to a bookstore or to the local supermarket, bring one of the twelve totes living in the back of your closet (regardless of how well a new one would complement your outfit) and be mindful that your current choices and habits may not be as totally sustainable as you think.

Fabric bag isolated on green background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.