Bag It Up: The Canvas Tote Crisis Is Upon Us

Getty Images
In some very contemporary news, it turns out we may have overdone it with one area of the sustainability movement: the canvas tote bag.
A humble and, by all previous accounts, eco way of traversing this Earth with half our belongings in tow, the canvas tote bag has been a godsend. From brands trying to adopt more sustainable packaging, to the grocery store bandits who never miss a beat in bringing their own green bags, everyone you know likely has a surplus of these stashed in their cupboards. 
And why wouldn’t we? With the knowledge that a plastic bag takes 1,000 years (on average) to decompose, clogs up landfills and are a detriment to our precious marine life, the call to quit plastic has been heard on a global scale. In recent times, we’ve seen some major triumphs as a result, with huge conglomerate businesses like Woolworths and Coles denouncing the use of plastic bags and making a pledge to be plastic bag free for customers and removing 3.2 billion single-use plastic bags from circulation every year in the process.  
Advertisement
But a new report by The New York Times suggests that we’ve yet again taken something good, too far, creating a whole new eco nightmare. The issue? We're inundated with canvas tote bags. Here's why that's a problem.
According to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, an organic cotton tote needs to be used a staggering 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production — which equates to the daily use of just one bag for 54 years. 
The fact is that cotton — what canvas is made from — requires copious amounts of water to manufacture. And although it’s an organic fabric, only about 15% of the 30 million bags produced a year end up in textile depositories to be reused again. Not only that, but when you factor in the logos, branding, and waterproofing that gets mixed into a lot of the bags in question, they can be as undegradable as some plastics. 
As the article points out, it was arguably British designer Anya Hindmarch who really put the reusable cotton bag on the map with her iconic 2007 “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote created with the environmental agency Swift, which encouraged shoppers to stop buying single-use bags and became a hit amongst the style set. From there, we’ve seen many a bag become a status symbol — whether it’s the ubiquitous New Yorker tote, painting a discerning picture of its wearer, or the more ‘if you know, you know’ kind of viral like the red Réalisation Par canvas bag that initially came with every purchase from the cult brand, or the checked iteration by Scandi interiors brand HAY.
Advertisement
The use of these canvas bags has also been an easy way for brands that aren't necessarily doing too well in their eco endeavours, to greenwash consumers into believing their practices are more Earth-friendly than they actually are.
And for the most part, their purpose is noble. After all, spinning something into a stylish statement, worthy of coveting, is arguably the most effective way to promote greener living. It’s only an issue when we rush to the extremes, churning out these reusable goods in a bid to be kinder to the planet, but not quite nailing the balance that is to be met. It’s worth noting that plastic keep-cups and tupperware containers don’t fall far on the list of sustainable props we could stand to use more thoughtfully, too. That isn’t to equate canvas tote bags with the likes of plastic straws and bags, especially since the organic kind can take about a year to break down, but to highlight the difference between something that is ‘more sustainable’ and genuine conservation.
So while you shouldn’t be too quick to ditch your totes, it’s vital that we actually make use of them to make sure they’re fulfilling their purpose. Use them more effectively, ease up on purchasing new ones, and look to DIY ideas to repurpose the totes you haven’t touched since three summers ago or aren’t prepared to use for the next 50 or so years.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here

More from Fashion