This may sound silly. But The New York Times recently focused on a problem you’ve probably never thought about: “the cotton tote crisis.”
What? How can cotton tote bags create a crisis?
The Times described a woman who decided to count all of the free cotton tote bags she’d accumulated in her closet. They totaled 25. She complained that they’d been foisted on her at a variety of stores and hotels: “You get them without choosing.”
This woman’s complaint is preposterous. No one is compelled to accept a cotton or any other kind of tote bag. When I’m doing errands, like shopping for groceries or other items, I bring along tote bags I already own. I’ll sometimes take an empty backpack and fill that up with groceries, books, or the like.
But I do admit that I like tote bags and have acquired a lot of them. Counting them seems absurd, but I’ll bet I have at least 25. I especially like those that promote my public library, art museums, reading, and causes I support, like the environment. My favorites at the moment? One from the Save-the-Redwoods League, another from the California State Parks Foundation, both sent to me in return for a small donation.
But the question remains: Is there really a crisis?
It turns out that there is a crisis. But it’s a crisis that goes far beyond one’s possession of a heap of tote bags. The crisis arises out of possessing everything that’s made of cotton.
Why? Because cotton is itself an environmental hazard. First, growing cotton takes up a lot of land, and it has “a big carbon footprint.” As Tatiana Schlossberg has explained, producing the world’s cotton supply for use in textiles results in over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. It also uses a lot of chemicals like insecticides and fertilizers. But according to Schlossberg, the biggest problem with growing cotton is how much water it uses. [Schlossberg’s 2019 book, Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, is worth reading.]
The media are currently full of stories about the increasing worldwide shortage of water. Global water supplies are seriously stressed. Drought in the western United States is notably causing huge problems, leading to harsh restrictions on water usage that will probably hit residents who’ve blown off the warnings for years. Farmers will bear most of the impact, causing predicted shortages in our food supply.
The story in the Times backs up these conclusions. It notes the many problems with cotton, quoting a University of Maine professor that cotton is “so water-intensive.” Others state that another serious issue, forced labor, is involved in the production of cotton.
As for tote bags, according to the Times, a Danish study concluded in 2018 that an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times “to offset its overall impact of production.” I’m not quite sure how that figure was arrived at, but, okay, let’s agree that we don’t need all of the cotton tote bags that are currently produced. Stores use them as “mobile billboards,” possibly helping them boost their sales. Charities use tote bags to promote their more virtuous goals. But cutting back in either case is probably a good idea.
Think about alternatives. The string bags popular in Europe might be adequate for your needs. If you’re handy with needle and thread, try cutting up old clothes and sewing them into colorful tote bags. Keep using the bags you already have. But don’t forget: Plastic bags are far worse for the environment and should never be considered a desirable option.
At the same time, we don’t need a lot of the fashion items that use cotton. That inexpensive dress from H&M? That sharp cotton shirt from Macy’s? Another pair of Levi’s? Yes, these may look great, but I’ll bet that your closet’s already full. Let’s not buy any more than we need.
Can we substitute other textiles for cotton? Suggestions abound. Recycled cotton may be an alternative. Hemp is another. Recycled plastic water bottles? Yes!
The real goal here: Reducing the production and sale of unnecessary items made of cotton. Clothes, of course. Tote bags, too.
Please keep this question in mind: How many pairs of jeans do you really need? Think about it. The same answer ought to apply to tote bags, cotton and otherwise.