The Cotton Tote Crisis
Recently, Venetia Berry, an artist in London, counted up the free cotton tote bags that she had accumulated in her closet. There were at least 25.
There were totes from the eco-fashion brand Reformation and totes from vintage stores, totes from Soho House, boutique countryside hotels and independent art shops. She had two totes from Cubitts, the millennial-friendly opticians, and even one from a garlic farm. “You get them without choosing,” Ms. Berry, 28, said.
Cotton bags have become a means for brands, retailers and supermarkets to telegraph a planet-friendly mind-set — or, at least, to show that the companies are aware of the overuse of plastic in packaging. (There was a brief lull in cotton tote use during the pandemic, when there were fears that reusable bags could harbor the virus, but they are now fully back in force.)
“There’s a trend in New York right now where people are wearing merch: carrying totes from local delis, hardware stores or their favorite steakhouse,” said the designer Rachel Comey. (See: the reboot of “Gossip Girl” for pop culture proof.)
So far, so earth-friendly? Not exactly. It turns out the wholehearted embrace of cotton totes may actually have created a new problem.
An 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. According to that metric, if all 25 of her totes were organic, Ms. Berry would have to live for more than a thousand years to offset her current arsenal. (The study has not been peer-reviewed.)
根据丹麦环境和食品部(Ministry of Environment and Food)2018年的一项研究，一个有机棉环保袋需要被使用2万次才能抵消生产它所产生的整体影响。这相当于每天都使用同一个袋子，用上54年。照这样计算，如果贝瑞的25个环保袋都是有机棉的，她将不得不活1000多年才能抵消她目前的环保袋库存带来的影响。（该研究尚未经过同行评审。）
“Cotton is so water intensive,” said Travis Wagner, an environmental science professor at the University of Maine. It’s also associated with forced labor, thanks to revelations about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and supplies most Western fashion brands. And figuring out how to dispose of a tote in an environmentally low-impact way is not nearly as simple as people think.
“棉花非常耗水，”缅因大学(University of Maine)环境科学教授特拉维斯·瓦格纳(Travis Wagner)说。由于中国新疆维吾尔人的待遇问题被揭露，棉花生产还与强迫劳动有关。全世界20%的棉花由新疆生产，并为大多数西方时尚品牌供货。要弄清楚如何以对环境造成较小影响的方式丢弃环保袋，也并不像人们想象的那么简单。
You can’t, for example, just put a tote in a compost bin: Maxine Bédat, a director at the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit focused on fashion and sustainability, said she has “yet to find a municipal compost that will accept textiles.”
例如，你不能把环保袋就这样放入堆肥箱中：专注于时尚和可持续发展的非营利组织新标准研究所(New Standard Institute)的主管马克辛·贝达特(Maxine Bédat)说，她“尚未找到可以接受纺织品的城市堆肥”。
And only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year actually makes its way to textile depositories.
Even when a tote does make it to a treatment plant, most dyes used to print logos onto them are PVC-based and thus not recyclable; they’re “extremely difficult to break down chemically,” said Christopher Stanev, the co-founder of Evrnu, a Seattle-based textile recycling firm. Printed patterns have to be cut out of the cloth; Mr. Stanev estimates 10 to 15 percent of the cotton Evrnu receives is wasted this way.
At which point there is the issue of turning old cloth into new, which is almost as energy intensive as making it in the first place. “Textile’s biggest carbon footprint occurs at the mill,” Ms. Bédat said.
The cotton tote dilemma, said Laura Balmond, a project manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular campaign, is “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape.”
艾伦·麦克阿瑟基金会(Ellen MacArthur Foundation)的“让时尚循环”(Make Fashion Circular)活动的项目经理劳拉·巴尔蒙德(Laura Balmond)表示，棉布环保袋的两难困境“是一个非常好的例子，说明人们试图做出积极的选择，却没有了解整体情况，这导致了意想不到的后果”。
How did we get here?
Arguably, it was the British designer Anya Hindmarch who put the reusable cotton bag on the map. Her 2007 “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote, created with the environmental agency Swift, sold for around $10 (£5) in supermarkets. It encouraged shoppers to stop buying single-use bags and went effectively viral.
英国设计师安雅·欣德马奇(Anya Hindmarch)可以说是让可重复使用棉布袋名声大噪的主要推手。她在2007年与环保机构Swift合作制作的“我不是塑料袋”(I’m Not a Plastic Bag)环保袋在超市以约45元（5英镑）的价格售出。它鼓励购物者停止购买一次性塑料袋，这迅速有效地传播开了。
“Eighty thousand people queued in one day in the U.K.” alone, the designer said. And it was effective. The number of bags bought in the U.K. dropped from around 10 billion to about six billion by 2010, according to the British Retail Consortium. “It was important at the time to use fashion to communicate the problem,” Ms. Hindmarch said.
设计师说，仅在“英国一天就有8万人排队”。而且它很有效。根据英国零售商协会(British Retail Consortium)的数据，到2010年，在英国购买的塑料袋数量从大约100亿个下降到大约60亿个。欣德马奇说：“用时尚来传达这个问题在当时很重要。”
Naturally, it soon became a branding tool. The famed cream-and-black New Yorker tote turned into a status symbol; since 2014, the Condé Nast-owned weekly has gifted two million bags to subscribers, according to a spokesman for the magazine.
它很快就自然而然地成为了一种品牌工具。著名的奶油色和黑色相间的《纽约客》(New Yorker)手提布包变成了身份的象征；据该杂志发言人称，自2014年以来，这本康泰纳仕(Condé Nast)旗下的周刊已向订阅者赠送了200万个袋子。
Kiehls, the skin care line, offers totes for $1, while fashion brands like Reformation began bagging purchases in black cotton versions; Lakeisha Goedluck, 28, a writer in Copenhagen, said she has “at least six.” Some customers get rid of theirs by selling them on Poshmark.
The idea, said Shaun Russell, the founder of Skandinavisk, a Swedish skin care brand that is a registered B Corp — or business that meets certain standards for social or environmental sustainability — is “to use your customers as mobile billboards.” It’s free advertising. “Any brand that claims otherwise would be lying,” he added.
瑞典护肤品牌Skandinavisk是一家获得B Corp认证的企业，即符合特定社会或环境可持续性标准的企业。该公司创始人肖恩·拉塞尔(Shaun Russell)说，商家用环保袋是为了“将顾客用作移动广告牌”。这是免费广告。他还说：“任何声称其他理由的品牌都是在撒谎。”
Suzanne Santos, the chief customer officer of Aesop, doesn’t know exactly how many ecru bags the Aussie beauty brand produces every year but admitted it’s “a lot.” Aesop, which is also a registered B Corp, first introduced them as shopping bags a decade ago; Ms. Santos said customers consider them “an emblematic part of the Aesop experience.” So much so that the brand receives angry emails when they don’t arrive with online orders. “Abuse would be the right word,” she said, describing it over a Zoom call from Sydney. (Ms. Santos said customers wanting to offload their excess bags can return them to stores, though Aesop doesn’t advertise that possibility on its website or in-store.)
Aesop的首席顾客官苏珊·桑托斯(Suzanne Santos)说，她不知道这家澳大利亚美容品牌每年生产多少环保袋，只是承认有“很多”。同为B Corp注册企业的Aesop在十年前推出这种袋子，当时将其作为购物袋使用，桑托斯说，顾客们认为这些袋子是“Aesop体验象征性的一部分”，以至于有人因为网购订单没有随附袋子而发来愤怒的邮件。“准确说是辱骂，”她在悉尼通过Zoom接受采访时这样形容。桑托斯说，顾客要是想清理掉手头多余的袋子，可以还给店里，不过Aesop在网站和门店都没有明确告知可以这样做。）
Cotton bags have long existed in luxury; shoes and handbags come in protective dust wrappings. But the supposed sustainability of totes means more brands than ever are packaging wares in ever more layers. Items that don’t even need protection from dust, like hair scrunchies, organic tampons and facial cleansers, now arrive swaddled in a sleeping bag.
“It’s just packaging on top of packaging on top of packaging,” said Ms. Bédat.
That’s not to say cotton is worse than plastic, or that the two should even be compared. While cotton can use pesticides (if it’s not organically grown) and has dried up rivers from water consumption, lightweight plastic bags use greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, never biodegrade and clog up the oceans.
Weighing the two materials against each other, “we end up in an environmental what-about-ism that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution,” said Melanie Dupuis, a professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University.
将这两种材料放在一起比较，“就导致了一种环保的比烂主义，让消费者觉得并没有什么解决方案，”佩斯大学(Pace University)环境研究和科学教授米兰妮·杜普伊斯(Melanie Dupuis)说。
Buffy Reid, of the British knitwear label &Daughter, halted production of her cotton bags in April this year; she’s planning to implement an on-site feature where customers can opt into receiving one. Though Aesop isn’t halting production, the brand is converting the composition of their bags to a 60-40 blend of recycled and organic cotton. “It will cost us 15 percent more,” said Ms. Santos, but “it reduces water by 70 to 80 percent.”
Some brands are turning to other textile solutions. The British designer Ally Capellino recently swapped cotton for hemp, while Ms. Hindmarch introduced a new version of her original tote, this time made from recycled water bottles; Nordstrom also uses similar bags in its stores.
In the end, the simplest solution may be the most obvious. “Not every product needs a bag,” said Ms. Comey.