Lately you may have noticed that trendy designer tote bags have become a charged medium for design and self expression. Touting sleek graphics and slogans such as “I am Not a Plastic Bag”, these reusable bags have become a way to wear your environmental awareness on your sleeve. However these bags are often produced overseas from non-organic cotton, and does anyone ever use their designer totes to replace plastic bags at the supermarket? Fearing that eco-marketed bags have become objects of over-consumption themselves, we decided to take an in-depth look at these issues of style over substance.

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You may recognize the bag pictured above. Superdesigner Anya Hindmarch was recruited to design this bag by We Are What We Do, a social reform movement founded in the U.K. The goal was to harness the trend-generating power of high fashion to create awareness of the wastefulness of disposable bags. The bags retailed for £5 in England and $15 in the U.S.

Shortly after the release of the Hindmarch bag, the UK paper the Evening Standard revealed that the bags had been made with cheap labor in China and shipped by sea. They were also made from conventional cotton, which drew criticism from environmentalists because non-organic cotton crops use a lot of pesticides. Critics also complained because the cotton wasn’t fair trade.

But the bags were a smash hit. London stores ran out literally within a few hours, and retailers around the U.K. quickly sold out of the 20,000 bags that were made. When the bags went on sale in Taiwan, 30 people were sent to a hospital after being injured in the stampede. Photos of celebrities with the bags started popping up, feeding the hype. The bags now go for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Designer canvas totes persist. You can rock a Marc Jacobs tote for $12 if you can find one in stores – you might have to pay $60 on eBay otherwise. But does anyone ever use their designer totes to replace plastic bags?

Plastic bags are derived from petroleum products and they are basically made to be thrown away after you bring your groceries in from the car. They are non-renewable and most end up in landfills even if they are lucky enough to enjoy a second life as the liner for the mini-trash can in someone’s bathroom.

Therefore, any reusable bag, even if it’s made in a Chinese sweat shop from cotton produced using pesticides and flown to the U.S. by plane, is inherently more environmentally friendly than a disposable plastic bag. But if it’s not replacing any plastic bags, it’s just another consumable. As Dmitri Siegel wrote in his post on this topic at Design Observer, “it is unclear that a consumable can counteract the effects of consumption.” This is true for designer bags that people buy and wear because they’re cheap, branded and trendy, forgetting that they can be used to replace plastic bags.

It’s an issue of style over substance. If the major selling point of your tote or tee is that it is eco-friendly, marketing it based upon the fact that it has a screen print with a positive message reveals that you don’t really understand sustainability. This is where the “I am not a plastic bag” campaign went wrong. The bag created such a craze that the element of sustainability – using a tote instead of a plastic bag when you buy things at the store – was largely obscured.

Is It Green?

Hindmarch had a chance to make a strong point but she blew it. She made her bags reusable but not sustainable. She could have made the bags out of the finest recycled material in the land. She could have had them made at factories in the same country where they were being sold. People know that plastic bags are bad for the environment. The “I am not a plastic bag” bag could have illuminated some of the subtler ways bags impact the environment.

But was it ultimately a positive for the environmental movement, because it generated awareness and made reusable bags cool? Or was it a net negative because it diverted attention from deeper questions about sustainability while letting people think they were being green?

Darby Hoover is a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit that doesn’t hesitate to call “greenwashing” when they see it. Hoover is a fan of the “I am not a plastic bag” bag: “I think incorporating environmental consciousness into fashion is a wonderful way to make it trendy,” Hoover said in an email. “If you’re someone more inclined to get a bag that meets your fashion standards, then by all means. If people are doing the right thing the motive doesn’t really matter as much.”

VP Albe Zakes of TerraCycle, makers of the “I Used to be a Plastic Bag” bag, also supports the idea of high-end designer reusable totes – as long as they are sustainably manufactured: “Substituting reusable bags for disposable plastic bags is absolutely essential. But not just any reusable bags are good enough,” Zakes said in an email. “Many bags commonly available in Canadian and North American stores are made from virgin materials and as such, have to be used 100-300 times before they even reach a break even point (estimates I seen have varied, but several hundred times is a safe statement).

“Bags made of natural fibers are an ideal choice, but until we’ve eradicated the common plastic bag, there also has to be a solution to that menace. I’m a fan, as you would expect, of TerraCycle’s solution – we collect post-consumer bags to use as the raw material for the “I Used to be a Plastic Bag.” Because we’re upcycling these bags rather than recycling, the process is much less labor intensive, and precludes toxic fumes from being created.”

+ Anya Hindmarch

+ Natural Resources Defense Council

+ TerraCycle