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Rethinking the Cotton Tote

  • 4 min read

Rethinking the Cotton Tote

Last month, theNew York Times published “The Cotton Tote Crisis,” which details why, despite their perceived environmental superiority, cotton totes aren’t the ideal replacement for single-use plastic and paper bags that many presume them to be. Within hours of the article’s publication, Twitter went wild with folks chiming in to support or dispel the claims put forth by author Grace Cook, and the 2018 study upon which the article is based. 

The author’s premise is that organic cotton tote bags represent a certain earth-friendly aesthetic that doesn’t jive with reality, given the production-heavy impact of cotton on the environment. The statistic the author quoted, “An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production” raised the alarm on social media, and heated controversy around its validity. While the numbers cited in the Danishstudy appear to be wildly inflated (for starters, the carrier bags compared were of different sizes and capacities), the overall premise — that cotton totes weigh heavily on the environment — is well-grounded. For a beautifully articulated dive into the study specifics and its calculations, check out Parkpoom Kometsopha’sanalysis.

So what’s wrong with cotton? 

For starters, production ofconventional cotton is water-intensive—theWorld Wildlife Fund estimates it requires 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton to make a single t-shirt.

In addition, cotton producers use pesticides and chemical fertilizers which pollute soil and water, poisoning the families residing in the communities where it’s farmed. According to areport by the Environmental Justice Foundation, cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single major crop. Harvestingorganic cotton eliminates some of these issues, but that process isn’t perfect either. 

There’s also concern about forced labor. Xinjiang, China produces 20% of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. Revelations about the human rights violations and forced labor of ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities have prompted a ban on cotton imports from this region. To delve deeper into this subject, consider reading Amelia Pang’sbook Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods, published earlier this year. Don’t let the title fool you—this isn’t an issue relegated to fast fashion. According to theAustralian Strategy Policy Institute, 27 factories across China use Uyghur labor from Xinjiang and claim to be part of the supply chain to 82 foreign and Chinese companies, including purveyors of high-end consumer products that routinely top wish lists nationwide.

Cotton production isn’t the only concern; disposal is problematic too. Municipal compost centers don’t accept textiles. And only 15% of cotton makes it to textile recycling centers. This means the majority of cotton textiles end up languishing in landfills.

So how did we get here? 

In an effort to minimize the usage of single-use plastic bags, eco-conscious consumers turned to reusable cotton totes as a sustainable-seeming alternative. Brands wholeheartedly embraced the shift, designing chic totes emblazoned with clever witticisms and graphics to create covetable accoutrements for the evolved shopper—and walking advertisements for their companies. While cotton totes have their benefits (reusable bags are always better than disposable), they're not the cure-all many had hoped.

As a conscientious consumer, what is one to do? We all know the issues around single-use plastic shopping bags, from their production in pollution-spewing oil refineries to their end contaminating waterways. And now, we’re informed about cotton. As Melanie Dupuis, professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University noted in the NYT article, “we end up in an environmental what-about-ism that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution.”

Until now, she was right. Enter BRINGiT Bags.

Yes, here comes the shameless plug! Honored byFast Company in their 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards, the BRINGiT Bag collection is thoughtfully crafted in Europe from sustainably harvested LENZING eucalyptus and beechwood fibers and available in the U.S. exclusively through BRINGiT. BRINGiT’s iTKit embodies the next generation of reusable, washable, compostable shopping bags and contains everything one needs—from totes to produce bags—for a plastic-free trip to the market. Each iTKit removes approximately 3,500 plastic bags from circulation during its lifecycle. And because they’re sustainably manufactured, their impact on the environment and the communities in which they’re made is a positive one. They’re built to last for years of stylish shopping, but once they’ve exhausted their usefulness, they’ll biodegrade to nourish the earth, instead of polluting it.  

How do you know this isn’t another ploy to greenwash and sell products? BRINGiT’s fabric checks all the boxes, so you can rest assured that from their start in FSC-certified European forests to their timely end in backyard compost piles nationwide, BRINGiT Bags exceed the highest standards across the board. So if you’re on a quest for eco-friendly gift ideas to bestow upon your near and dear this holiday season, look no further. We’ve got you covered.