Everyone has an enormous tote bag, usually from Fresh Direct or IKEA, that is pregnant with at least thirty other tote bags. This fertile, totable nesting doll is either shoved under the sink next to the plastic garbage bags or hung from a hook by the door. It is always forgotten about, not harming anyone.
Or is it? A disturbing new report from the New York Times claims that your prized tote bag matryoshka might be killing you — and the environment. Simply put, there are literally too many reusable tote bags in the world.
The New York Times has a hunch that brands are including canvas and cotton tote bags with all their online orders to virtue signal their commitment to sustainability. Those free cotton totes become covetable, and so people order more to get more totes. The article references Aesop ecru bags (“an emblematic part of the Aesop experience,” according to Aesop) and my colleague Tammie also told me about TikTok geniuses ordering relatively cheap Gucci nail polish online to procure status Gucci totes. But if the Tuscan formaldehyde in that $30 high gloss lacquer doesn’t kill you first, the tote will.
For generations, we have been told that people like these viral tote baggers are saving the environment by avoiding single-use plastics. The New York Times references a 2018 Danish study, however, that says an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset the environmental cost of production. That’s 52 years of tote bag usage.
Let’s run the numbers. Personally, I admit to sometimes bringing twelve pairs of underwear to the laundromat in a free Mansur Gavriel tote so that everyone knows that even though I wear underwear, I also have taste, or I thought I did in 2015. There’s no way this threadbare signifier is going to last until 2067, but no matter. I have hundreds of other tote bags, and I will be dead before I wash my underwear 20,000 more times. And you will be too. But our tote bags will be alive and well, piling up under the Earth’s kitchen counter, waiting for their turn to attend the farmer’s market in the increasingly hot sun.