It’s difficult to pinpoint when the canvas tote craze really started. The concept isn’t new, of course. Public television stations have been giving them away during fundraisers for decades, and L.L. Bean’s “Boat and Tote” has been a New England staple even longer. Sometime during the past few years, however, the environmental appeal of reusable bags and the easy application of graphics catapulted canvas sacks from health food stores to the runway.
Graphic designers embraced the form as a venue for messages on a par with the T-shirt. Design blogs became enthralled by the never-ending stream of totes—each one made unique by a clever or beautiful graphic. This glut of bags raises questions about the sustainability of any product regardless of the intentions behind it.
The ascension of canvas, after all, was fueled by the totes’ compelling social benefits. Not only is canvas a renewable resource, but the bags are biodegradable and sturdy enough to stand up to years of use. With global warming emerging as an everyday anxiety, designers and consumers alike latched on to the reusable tote as a tangible step they could take to help the environment. Reusing canvas bags could reduce—and eventually eliminate—the billions of plastic bags that are discarded every year.
The thought is noble, but it’s worth considering the irony: The plastic bag itself began as an environmental salve. Before the introduction of ultra-thin plastic bags in the 1980s, groceries were primarily packed in paper. Plastic was touted as a way to save trees. Within a few years plastic dominated the market. Comparing plastic to paper, it’s easy to see why; the plastic bag is a vastly superior design. It consumes 40 to 70 percent less energy to manufacture, generates 80 percent less solid waste, and produces 60 percent fewer atmospheric emissions. A plastic bag costs a quarter as much to produce and is substantially lighter (so it takes far less fuel to transport).
What is marvelous about an individual bag, however, becomes menacing when it is multiplied to accommodate a global economy. The low cost allowed merchants to give plastic bags away and, despite their strength, they’re routinely double-bagged. Their incredible durability means it can take up to hundreds of years for them to decompose. Although plastic bags are recyclable, in-store programs have barely managed to achieve a 1 percent recycle rate. It is simply too easy and efficient to keep making and distributing more plastic bags.
We could be headed for the same kind of catch-22 with the adoption of the canvas tote. I’m certainly an outlier in this case, but I recently found 23 of them in my house. Most were given to me as promotional materials for design studios, start-ups, and boutique shops; more than one came from an environmental organization; one even commemorates a friend’s wedding. A community group recently delivered a reusable bag to every house in my neighborhood to promote local holiday shopping.
This zeal for reusable bags is inspiring, but it also reveals the fundamental contradiction of the canvas tote phenomenon. Once this gorgeous flat surface presented itself, it quickly became a substrate for messaging, branding, and promotion—and the emphasis shifted from reusing a bag to having one that reflects status or personality.
Judging by the cost, producing one tote is equivalent to producing 400 plastic bags. That’s fine if you use a tote 400 times, but what if you just end up with 40 totes? The environmental promise of reusable bags becomes dubious when there are closets full of them in every home.
Designers are correct in thinking that making a more appealing bag increases the likelihood that it will be reused, but environmental benefit doesn’t come from people acquiring bags. It comes from people reusing them. Successful attempts to reduce the number of plastic bags have all focused (unsurprisingly) on depressing their consumption. In 2001 Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, 316 per person. In 2002 the country introduced a PlasTax—at the time 15 eurocents for every plastic bag consumed. The program reduced consumption of plastic bags by 90 percent. This success seems to undercut the strategy of selling reusable totes as a way to help the environment.
In terms of actually reducing the number of plastic bags floating around in our world, programs like the one at U.S. Ikea stores (customers pay five cents per bag and the proceeds go a conservation group) are more likely to have an impact than selling a canvas alternative. The best thing for the environment is reuse—and that can be accomplished just as easily by reusing plastic bags.
This isn’t to trash canvas: The aesthetic power of a single design raised more awareness about the impact of plastic bags on our environment than any government or nongovernment organization. Every well-designed tote had the potential to replace some of the estimated 1,000 plastic bags that each family brings home every year. It is simply unclear if a consumable can ever counteract the effects of consumption. The designs that make each bag unique contribute to an overabundance of things that are essentially identical, while the stream of newness, in the end, discourages reuse. Best intentions are buried under an avalanche of conspicuous consumption.
Just as the remarkable efficiency of the plastic bag transformed a solution into a menace, consumer culture could turn reusable canvas bags into an environmental calamity.
Dmitri Siegel (www.dmitrisiegel.com) is a Philadelphia-based designer and writer. This essay first appeared on DesignObserver.com. We spotted it republished in Creative Review (April 2009), a British magazine that covers all aspects of visual communication. www.creativereview.co.uk