The Cotton Bag Crisis – The New York Times


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

There were bags from the eco-fashion brand Reformation and bags from vintage stores, bags from Soho House, country boutique hotels and independent art stores. She had two bags of Cubitts, Millennial Friendly Opticians, and even one from a garlic farm. “You get them without choosing,” Ms. Berry, 28, said.

Cotton bags have become a way for brands, retailers and supermarkets to convey a planet-friendly mindset – or, at least, to show that companies are aware of the overuse of plastic in packaging. (There was a brief lull in the use of cotton bags during the pandemic, amid concerns that reusable bags could harbor the virus, but they are now back in force.)

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

So far, so ecological? Not exactly. It turns out that the wholehearted adoption of cotton bags may have created a new problem.

An organic cotton tote must be used 20,000 times to offset its overall production impact, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food. This equates to daily use for 54 years – for one bag. According to this metric, if her 25 bags were all organic, Ms. Berry would have to live over a thousand years to make up for her current arsenal.

“Cotton uses a lot of water,” said Travis Wagner, professor of environmental science at the University of Maine. It is also associated with forced labor, thanks to revelations about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20% of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. And figuring out how to dispose of a tote in a low environmental impact way isn’t as easy as you might think.

You can’t, for example, just put a tote in a compost bin: Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit focused on fashion and sustainability, said she ” had not yet found municipal compost that would accept textiles. “

And only 15 percent of the 30 million tonnes of cotton produced each year actually goes to textile depots.

Even when a tote arrives at a processing plant, most of the dyes used to print logos on it are PVC-based and therefore non-recyclable; they are “extremely difficult to chemically break down,” said Christopher Stanev, co-founder of Evrnu, a Seattle-based textile recycling company. Printed designs must be cut from the fabric; Mr. Stanev estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the cotton Evrnu receives is wasted this way.

How bad is the problem of turning old fabric into new, which is almost as energy intensive as making it in the first place. “The largest carbon footprint of textiles occurs at the factory,” Ms. Bédat said.

The cotton tote dilemma, said Laura Balmond, project manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular campaign, is “a very good example of the unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices and not understanding the landscape as a whole “.

How did we get here?

It was arguably British designer Anya Hindmarch who put the reusable cotton bag on the map. His 2007 “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote, created with environmental agency Swift, sold for around $ 10 (£ 5) in supermarkets. It encouraged shoppers to stop buying single-use bags and has indeed gone viral.

“Eighty thousand people lined up in one day in the UK alone,” said the designer. And it was effective. The number of bags purchased in the UK increased from around 10 billion to around six billion in 2010, according to the British Retail Consortium. “Back then, it was important to use fashion to communicate the problem,” Ms. Hindmarch said.

Naturally, it quickly became a branding tool. The famous cream and black New Yorker tote has become a status symbol; since 2014, the weekly owned by Condé Nast has offered two million bags to its subscribers, according to a spokesperson for the magazine.

Kiehls, the skincare line, offers $ 1 bags, while fashion brands like Reformation have started packing their purchases in black cotton versions; Lakeisha Goedluck, 28, a writer in Copenhagen, said she was “at least six”. Some customers get rid of theirs by selling them on Poshmark.

The idea, said Shaun Russell, founder of Skandinavisk, a Swedish skin care brand that is a registered B Corp – or a business that meets certain standards of social or environmental sustainability – is “to use your customers as mobile display panels “. It’s free advertising. “Any brand that claims otherwise would be lying,” he added.

Suzanne Santos, Aesop’s director of clientele, isn’t sure how many unbleached bags the Australian beauty brand produces each year, but admitted it was “a lot”. Aesop, which is also a registered B Corp company, first introduced them as shopping bags a decade ago; Ms. Santos said customers see them as “an iconic part of the Aesop experience”. So much so that the brand receives angry emails when they do not arrive with online orders. “Abuse would be the right word,” she said, describing it on a Zoom call from Sydney. (Ms Santos said customers wishing to unload their excess bags can return them to stores, although Aesop does not advertise this possibility on its website or in-store.)

Cotton bags have been around for a long time in luxury; shoes and handbags come in protective dustproof packaging. But the supposed durability of the bins means that more brands than ever are packing merchandise in more and more layers. Items that don’t even need dust protection, like scrunchies, organic tampons and facial cleansers, now arrive swaddled in a sleeping bag.

“It’s just packaging on packaging on packaging,” said Ms. Bédat.

That’s not to say cotton is worse than plastic, or that the two should even be compared. While cotton can use pesticides (if not organically grown) and has dried up rivers due to water consumption, lightweight plastic bags use gas-emitting fossil fuels. greenhouse effect, never biodegrade and clog the oceans.

By weighing the two materials against each other, “we end up in an environmental ‘what about-ism’ that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution,” said Melanie Dupuis, professor of environmental studies and sciences at Pace University.

Buffy Reid, of the British knitwear brand & Daughter, ceased production of its cotton bags in April of this year; it plans to implement an on-premise feature where customers can choose to receive one. Although Aesop is not stopping production, the brand is converting the composition of its bags to a 60-40 blend of recycled and organic cotton. “It will cost us 15% more,” Ms. Santos said, but “it reduces water by 70 to 80%.

Some brands are turning to other textile solutions. British designer Ally Capellino recently swapped cotton for hemp, while Ms Hindmarch presented a new take on her original tote, this time made from recycled water bottles; Nordstrom also uses similar bags in its stores.

In the end, the simplest solution may be the most obvious. “Not all products need a bag,” Ms. Comey said.

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