Totes amazing? Cottoning on to the real cost and sustainability of cotton bags

We’ve all seen it. Hundreds of cotton tote bags, dangling seductively by the doors as you enter the trade show.

And we’ve all done it too, plucking a bag from its hanger and tossing it carelessly over your shoulder.

Because tote bags are cool, right? A handy, trendy way to carry your event programme and free pen. They’re reusable, they last forever, they’re what all the millennials use and they’re made of cotton, which is natural and good – not like evil plastic.

The great war on plastic of the last few years means that no self-respecting event organiser would dream of having rows upon rows of plastic bags at the entrance to a show. Yet cotton tote bags are not only acceptable, they’re considered a desirable addition to an event.

One recent trade show proudly boasted that it would be providing “750 tote goodie bags as part of its commitment to end single-use plastic by 2023”.

And why not? Well, it turns out there’s some pretty big reasons why not – and we’re only just cottoning on to them.

The amount of water needed to produce cotton, the use and production of fertilizer in cotton growing and the energy required to process cotton into cotton yarn all mean that the humble cotton tote bag has a much bigger environmental impact than you might realise.

A UK study started in 2006 found that cotton bags should be reused at least 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than a plastic bag that is not reused.

And a study by the Danish government from earlier this year found that each cotton tote bag would have to be re-used 7,100 times to provide the same environmental performance of the average plastic bag. If it’s organic cotton, that rises to a staggering 20,000 times.

Basically, if you have a few cotton tote bags lying around in your house, you’re going to need to be using them for the rest of your life – and then leaving them in your will for someone else to use. That’s your family shopping bags sorted for the next couple of generations.

So what can you do about it? Well, if you’re organising an event, don’t give out tote bags, that seems quite simple. And next time you’re offered a tote bag at a trade show, just turn it down. If people stop taking them, you can bet your bottom dollar shows will stop providing them.

But also, it’s important to remember that while plastic is undoubtedly bad for the environment, we can’t just assume that the non-plastic alternatives are automatically better.