Why Cotton Totes Aren't The Eco-Friendly Darlings We Thought They Were — And What To Do Instead

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
Iuliia Bondar/Getty

We try to be environmentally responsible. We recycle. We use reusable water bottles instead of single use. We try to be good citizens of the planet.

But man on man, is it hard sometimes. Especially when we find out that those “environmentally responsible” habits like recycling aren’t actually as virtuous as we thought. Sigh…

Chances are most of us have a closet filled with reusable tote bags. If you’re like me, you might even have a bag filled with bags filled with bags of cotton tote bags to use for groceries and those regular Target runs. Every time I bust out those bags, I feel a little halo shine above my head.

Except that halo is probably made of plastic and I’m killing the planet with all those bags. Turns out all those cotton totes – most often with corporate branding to show how environmentally conscious the organization is – have created a new problem.

The New York Times reports that “[a]n organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production, according to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. That equates to daily use for 54 years — for just one bag.”


Why Cotton Totes Aren’t As Environmentally Virtuous As We’d Like to Think


Getty Images

As with most things, it comes down to science. Just like the underbelly of the recycling process consists of harmful byproducts and waste that no one likes to talk about, the same is true of cotton. Not only does it use a lot of water in the manufacturing process, but the cotton industry has also been associated with forced labor.

It’s also extremely difficult to dispose of in an environmentally-friendly way. According to The New York Times, “only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year actually makes its way to textile depositories.” Maxine Bédat, a director at the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit focused on fashion and sustainability, told The New York Times, she has “yet to find a municipal compost that will accept textiles.”

Even when a cotton tote does make its way to a treatment plant, they often have logos and branding on them that include PVC-based dyes that aren’t recyclable, Christopher Stanev, the co-founder of Evrnu, a Seattle-based textile recycling firm, told the Times. If the tote has patterns on it, the printed patterns need to be cut out, wasting an estimated 10-15 percent of the cotton. The process of recycling cotton uses almost as much energy as the initial manufacturing process.

“Textile’s biggest carbon footprint occurs at the mill,” Maxine Bédat said.

So What Are Those of Us Who Are Trying to Be Environmentally Conscious Do?

VTT Studio/Getty

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Well, first things first, even though cotton totes aren’t the golden ticket we though they were, they are still a whole lot better than plastic bags. Even though cotton uses pesticides if it’s not organically grown and has obliterated rivers with its excessive water consumption, lightweight plastic bags use greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, don’t biodegrade ever, and pollute the oceans. The debate shouldn’t be either cotton totes or plastic bags, because when we do so, “we end up in an environmental what-about-ism that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution,” Melanie Dupuis, a professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University, told The New York Times.

The question isn’t whether we should use cotton totes, but how much we should use them.

And we can definitely use a whole lot less of them. What started as a way to help the environment has morphed into a way for marketing campaigns and advertising tools for many organizations. (Corporate America — enough with the bags already; we all have more than enough.) It’s not a matter of not using cotton totes for our weekly (daily?) Target run; we just need to have less of them. Maybe you can skip a bag altogether. And stuff them full and use fewer. If you forget them in the car, instead of buying a couple new ones, spend five minutes to walk to your care to retrieve the ones you already have. I know it’s a hassle (believe me, I’ve been there), but we can do hard things.

And remember: being environmentally responsible isn’t a few habits here and there; it’s a way of life – oftentimes with generative impact. If you buy less stuff, you’ll have less stuff to put in a bag, and need less bags to hold all your stuff. Less stuff = a happy planet.

This article was originally published on