The reusable cotton bag crisis

There were bags from the eco-fashion brand Reformation and from retro stores, bags from Soho House, rural boutique hotels, and independent art stores. He had two bags from Cubitts, the millennial eyewear stores, and even one from a garlic farm. “They give them to you without you being able to decide,” said Berry, 28.

Cotton bags have become a means for brands, retailers and supermarkets to send the message of a respectful mentality with the planet or, at least, to show that companies are aware of the excessive use of plastic in packaging . (There was a brief hiatus in the use of cotton bags during the pandemic, when it was feared that reusable bags could harbor the virus, but now they are back to their best.)

“Right now, there is a trend in New York where people are carrying bags from local deli, hardware stores or their favorite steakhouse,” said designer Rachel Comey. (See: the relaunch of Gossip Girl as proof of pop culture).

Are they really that environmentally friendly? Not precisely. It turns out that the unconditional acceptance of cotton bags may have created a new problem.

To offset the global production impact of an organic cotton bag, it needs to be used 20,000 times, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of the Environment and Food. That equates to 54 years of daily use… for a single bag. By that measurement system, if Berry’s 25 bags were organic cotton, she would have to live for more than a thousand years to make up for her current arsenal.

“Cotton production consumes a lot of water,” explained Travis Wagner, a professor of environmental science at the University of Maine. It is also associated with forced labor, thanks to revelations about the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. In addition, determining how to dispose of a bag in an ecological way is not as simple as it is believed.

For example, you can’t put a bag in a compost bin: Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit organization focused on fashion and sustainability, said that “I have not yet found a municipal composter that accepts textiles. ”.

And only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced each year reaches textile warehouses.

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

“Eighty thousand people lined up in a single day in the UK,” said the designer, and it was effective. The number of bags purchased in the UK fell from about 10 billion to about 6 billion in 2010, according to the British Retailers Association. “At the time, it was important to use fashion to communicate the problem,” Hindmarch said.

Cotton bags accumulated by a single person in London, on August 16, 2021, hung to dry. (Free Press Photo: Suzie Howell / The New York Times).

Of course, it soon became a branding tool. The famous cream and black magazine bag The New Yorker it became a status symbol; Since 2014, the weekly belonging to the Condé Nast publishing group has given away 2 million bags to its subscribers, according to a spokesperson for the magazine.

Kiehls, the line of skin care products, offers these bags for $ 1, while fashion brands like Reformation began storing purchases in black cotton bags; Lakeisha Goedluck, 28, a writer from Copenhagen, said she is “at least six.” Some customers get rid of theirs by selling them on the Poshmark internet sales site.

According to Shaun Russell, the founder of Skandinavisk, a Swedish skincare brand that is a B Corp certified company (or company that meets certain standards of social or environmental sustainability), the idea is to “use your customers as mobile banner ads. ”. It’s free advertising. “Any brand that says otherwise would be lying,” he added.

Suzanne Santos, director of customer service at Aesop, doesn’t know exactly how many ecru bags the Australian beauty brand produces each year, but admitted there are “a lot.” Initially, Aesop, which is also a B Corp certified company, implemented them as shopping bags a decade ago; Santos pointed out that clients consider them “an emblematic part of the Aesop experience.” So much so that the brand receives emails expressing annoyance when the online orders do not include the bags. “Rudeness would be the right word,” he said in a Zoom call from Sydney describing the emails. (Santos said that customers who want to dispose of their leftover bags can return them to stores, although Aesop does not advertise that possibility on its website or in stores.)

Cotton bags have been around for a long time in the luxury sector; shoes and bags come wrapped in dust covers, but the purported sustainability of bags means that more and more brands are packing their products in more layers. Items that don’t even need dust protection – like hair ties, organic tampons, and facial cleansers – now arrive wrapped in a sleeping bag.

“It’s just a package on a package on a package,” said Bédat.

This is not to say that cotton is worse than plastic, or that you have to compare them. Although cotton may require pesticides (if it is not organically grown) and has dried up rivers from water consumption, lightweight plastic bags use fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, never biodegrade and clog the oceans.

By contrasting the two materials, “we end up at an environmental crossroads that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution,” said Melanie Dupuis, professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University.

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

Some brands are turning to other textile solutions. Designer brand Ally Capellino recently switched from cotton to hemp, while Hindmarch introduced a new version of its original bag, 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,” Comey concluded.

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