Are tote bags really more environmentally friendly than plastic bags?

Do you have a canvas bag at home? Do you remember why you bought it, for shopping, fashion or anything else?

Tote bags became popular in 2007 when “I’m not a plastic bag” attracted 80 thousand people to queue at Sainsbury. In China, also at the end of 2007, a regulation was put into practice to restrict the production and usage of plastic bags. All plastic bags started to charge since then.

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Up till this day, tote bags are regarded a symbolic part of an environmental-friendly lifestyle. However, an article published by Noah Dillon pointed out that canvas bags are “green in principle, but not in the way people use them”. What he found out by comparing paper, plastic and canvas bags, is that disposable plastic bags generally have the smallest effect on global warming. At the end of article, he suggested that every tote bag needs to be used 327 times in order to be truly environmentally friendly.

Let us not misunderstood the author that plastic bags are more environmentally friendlier than canvas bags, for that plastic bags are hard to be degraded by nature while canvas bag production makes more greenhouse gases. They are harmful in different ways.

Noteworthy is that gives us a lessen on our lifestyles. When we replace plastic bags with canvas ones, we are supposed to reuse for as long as we can. Some of us did but some didn’t. In the meantime, fashion industry takes advantage of environmental protection and creates a market where supply exceeds demand. It is not hard to notice that canvas bags are sold in clothes stores, souvenir stores and customized for corporations alike.

Speaking of fashion industry, fast fashion brands have been accused of polluting the environment for using harmful chemicals in production. German filmed a 45-minute documentary on jeans, Der Preis Der Blue Jeans.

der preis der blue jeans
Workers spraying paint on jeans. It is told to be a process for the popular old-fashioned look. Screenshot from the documentary.

The short film was shot in southern China, where human labor is cheap enough to keep the jeans still cheap in German market. Workers work in hostile environments, with unbearable noise and toxic chemical dusts. Rivers become black and farmlands no longer grow crops.

The production and business mode of fast fashion brands like H&M, mentioned in this film, are not acceptable.

They sell jeans cheap; to keep price low, they move production to developing countries like China and India; they produce massively and bring severe pollution problems locally; they want to protect the environment but that will raise prices of their jeans.

“Made in China” means more than good quality of products, also hostile working conditions and irreversable polluted nature. In addition to environment issues, I believe that no one wants toxic clothings on their skins or those of their children. Both issues deserve global attention and action.

Inevitably as consumer, similar to the idea of using each tote bag to 327 times, we should try to buy less first and wear for longer time.


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