Recently, a tote bag craze swept the nation. It seems like everywhere you look there is a cute cotton tote — even on our shoulders. They are stylish, convenient and roomy. We love to bring our totes, filled with books, pens, planners and our favorite chapsticks to coffee shops, carrying the idea that we are cooler than everyone else. And, until recently, we too assumed they were the perfect way to broadcast our passion for sustainability and subtle political messaging.
However, the tote bag trend stems from a problematic culture of overconsumption and access to performative trends. It shouldn’t excuse us from taking substantial actions to reduce our environmental footprint. But, don’t worry, we can still look good while doing it.
The current prevalence of tote bags is a fast fashion issue. We keep buying them because it’s a trend. And when we are constantly revamping our wardrobe to keep up with trends, we resort to cheap purchases to soften the financial blow. But with cheap purchases, comes cheap materials. These materials wear out quicker which doesn’t allow you to wear them beyond their practical use and production cost.
Tote bags are marketed as environmentally friendly products. Yet, “an organic cotton tote needs to be used 200,000 times to offset its overall impact of production.” We think that buying totes are a sustainable solution, but it’s counterintuitive to solve environmental issues with consumption.
At the end of the day, buying more textile products just increases our environmental footprint as more products take more time to decompose. Moderation is key when addressing our use of tote bags. There’s no need to keep buying totes when you can stick with a few good ones.
Capitalism perpetuates an overconsumption cycle. We buy into trends that we assume are good for the environment, so much so that there’s a market for tote bags. Stores are encouraged to sell tote bags because they know we will buy them — and we buy them because we see stores selling them.
We are surrounded by a culture that encourages us to buy more, even when we have enough. Instagram ads, TikTok Shein hauls and influencers encourage us to keep buying. No one needs 15 tote bags.
Beyond the fallacy of tote bags being sustainable products, they are also a status symbol. Corporations worldwide have created the perfect market for tote bags that have flourished over the last several years. But, like all forms of status, tote bag exceptionalism is only available to those who can afford it.
The perfect example of this is The New Yorker, which has given cotton tote bags alongside subscription purchases since 2014. By carrying around a tote bag from The New Yorker, you’re not only sending the message that you are a person who is intellectually advanced enough to read The New Yorker, but you’re also saying that you’re affluent enough to afford the annual $100 subscription.
Specifically, 41% of people subscribing to The New Yorker have yearly incomes of 75,000 dollars or more. To put that into perspective, only 26% of families in the U.S. have incomes greater than 75,000 dollars.
The trend has taken hold and shows no sign of stopping. Alas, the result: a cotton tote bag with the words “farmers market” printed on the front is selling for $24 at an Urban Outfitters near you. While unpalatable, the Urban Outfitter tote was undeniably inevitable.
Tote bag status is expensive, but when has price ever hindered a booming market? Never. The market moved with the demand — unsustainable tote bags and trendy girls (like us) are collateral. Tote bags make performative environmentalism exclusive to those who can afford the trend.
Even still, tote bag use is inevitable. We love our tote bags. But going forward, we’re going to reduce our purchasing of them, and you should too. And if the tote bag temptation gets the best of you, stand your ground, and buy your next tote locally and ethically.
As the weight of the world sits on the shoulders of our generation, we must claim the role of the well-informed consumer. We must know what we are buying into and question the corporations that tempt us with their very efficient, roomy, cute products.
You can still buy the products you like and that bring you confidence — for us, it’s tote bags. But let’s make sure to buy them intentionally and advocate for system-wide changes to make fashion more sustainable and equitable.