Fashion & DesignThe Tote Bag: Historically practical yet unknowingly unethical

The Tote Bag: Historically practical yet unknowingly unethical

The Tote Bag (noun) – a two-strap cotton bag found in almost every wardrobe, positioned as eco-friendly and widely regarded as a stylish yet convenient and casual accessory, makes it impossible to find any small-to-mid sized item.


For consumers, tote bags are quick and easy to access, and their availability encourages further consumption when paired with colour combinations and stand out graphic designs. Designer brands like Givenchy and APC have adopted the tote bag in recent years, crafting their own names onto the popular item and adding a luxury spin.


Tote bags go big


One designer name is especially visible in the world of totes lately. A giant inflatable Marc Jacobs tote bag served as a pop-up shop on the Lower East Side of New York City last month. The shocking light-purple tote bag installation brought consumers to the streets and inspired some online chatter about sustainability.


Photo featured from Marc Jacobs Instagram Page


A brand name turns the tote bag into a social signifier, and smaller businesses and communities have influence as well. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in Toronto without seeing at least five Toronto Public Library (TPL) tote bags and you’re bound to see a The New Yorker bag in dozens of cities. Whether it’s showing your love of designer labels or declaring “yes, I read!”, the tote bag is a strong indicator of how you want to be seen.


So, we all know and love the tote bag. It may look sleek and feel conveniently functional, but is the cotton tote bag as sustainable as it seems?


Refashionista Sheri’s upcycled vintage hankie tote


Tote bag consumer and eco-fashion content creator Sheri Pavlović, known online as Refashionista Sheri, says having a tote bag on hand when you’re out and about is a normal part of everyday life. However, with normalcy comes responsibility. “It’s important to know how and by whom your tote was made. While it may be more eco-friendly to use a tote for your shopping instead of a plastic bag, it’s not environmental or ethical unless it was created sustainably under humane and ethical conditions.”


Photo by Sofia Marquet


Too many cotton totes


The cotton tote bag has become a mass-produced item offered in local shops and merchandise stands across the world. Often disguised as “eco-friendly,” a tag line that has helped make this accessory so popular, resources of the cotton tote bag creation process require mass amounts of cotton, wider distribution efforts and contain higher carbon content than single-use plastic and paper bags.


These days, no tote bag is complete without a graphic print. These prints and labels are often difficult to break down chemically and specific PVC-based prints are impossible to recycle. If printed areas can be removed, the surrounding cloth is sent back to textile mills, requiring more energy and contributing to a higher carbon footprint.


The tote bag that started it all


Let’s rewind a little. The original tote bag was made for transporting items, hence the word “tote” meaning to carry or transport. While the word’s origin dates back to the 1670’s, the first tote bag was inspired by the inconvenient task of carrying ice from one place to another. With this, outdoor equipment company L.L. Bean introduced the Boat Bag in 1944. The heavyweight canvas material with reinforced handles created a supportive, waterproof solution for carrying tricky items. The bag remains practical today as a redefined tote and has since opened many doors of functionality beyond its original purpose.


L.L. Bean’s Boat and Tote Zip Top Bag


Already a popular bag amongst fashion crowds and students, December 2022 is when tote bags truly broke out. When Canada’s ban on harmful single-use plastics was put in place, Canadians had to consider reusable alternatives. The tote bag stepped into the spotlight as a method of transportation of groceries and everyday items alongside its clean addition to minimalist aesthetics and streetwear.


Should you need a new bag to add to your wardrobe, Fashionista Sheri encourages shopping pre-loved. “You’ll not only be saving a bag from the landfill but you may just discover an amazingly unique find that no one else has! If secondhand isn’t your style then check out locally made, quality items from independent designers in your area and support small businesses,” she says.


Regardless of whether the cotton tote is a timeless piece of street fashion or simply a lingering alternative to plastic, it’s probably not going anywhere. The solution? Shop local and truly consider how many tote bags you need in your life (hint: it’s probably not as many as you think).



Stephanie Beattie is a Glossi Mag contributor.


In her final year of journalism school at Toronto Metropolitan University, Stephanie loves painting, Bob Dylan and caramel lattes.


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