Are tote bags really that eco-friendly?

Are tote bags really that eco-friendly?

At home, is it more like zero tote bags, one or two lying around, or a whole pile that you’ve been accumulating for years? Both on sale in stores and supermarkets and distributed free of charge at events, the famous reusable cotton bag is everywhere. Initially designed to offer an alternative to disposable bags, it has even become a real fashion accessory. But beyond its function, what about its manufacture? In other words: what is its ecological impact? 20 minutes slipped into a tote bag and found the answer for you.

Cotton in the viewfinder

“Reusable”, “organic cotton”, “eco-responsible”… On paper, buying or recovering a tote bag is like making a gesture for the planet. In practice, the finding is not so glorious. According to CNRS, to produce 1 kg of cotton requires 5.263 liters of water. However, a tote bag weighs between 100 and 500 grams/m3, which amounts to using between 500 and 2,600 liters of water. In addition, 5.7% of the world’s pesticides are used on cotton, according to a study by the Pesticide Action Networkin the United Kingdom, dating from 2018.

And if organic cotton proves to be considerably less water-intensive than conventional cotton (91% less water, according to a report of the NGO Textile Exchange dating from 2014), only “1% of the cotton produced in the world is organic”, reports Thomas Ebélé, co-founder and general manager of SloWeAre, an eco-responsible fashion label. According to him, using cotton yarn to make tote bags is therefore ridiculous. “They should be reserved for clothes that are in contact with the skin,” he adds.

“Goodies that have no place to be”

Added to the environmental cost of cotton yarn production are other factors. In particular the prints, with “often non-responsible” inks, according to Thomas Ebélé. And the “goodies that brands put in the tote bags distributed”, indicates Antoine Saint-Pierre, associate director of Weavings of CharlieuSME specializing in textile weaving in the Loire. “Here, we weave the patterns directly, instead of printing them,” adds the business manager.

Another downside, therefore: the tote bags distributed free of charge. “It itself becomes a goodie that has no place to be”, according to Thomas Ebélé. “Companies use it as communication operations, and we encourage them to reduce this practice,” says Laura Frouin, project manager at Zéro Waste France. Thomas Ebelé nuance: “there is still a good alternative to disposable bags, provided you do not forget it when you go shopping”. The idea is therefore to reuse, not to accumulate. And on a large scale: to offset the carbon footprint generated by its manufacture, it would be necessary to use a tote bag 7,000 times, according to a danish study dating from 2018.

Adopt better reflexes

But what if you still want to afford one? According to Antoine Saint-Pierre, the ideal is to favor recycled cotton bags. Or even to go and retrieve one already used by others. This recycling reflex is what tries to establish Zero Waste France with its “Zero Waste House”. “We invite customers to bring the tote bags they no longer use, to make them available to those who need them,” explains Laura Frouin. A habit that is still difficult to adopt. “People don’t have the reflex to bring their tote bag(s) to collection centers, even though it’s fiber”, observes Thomas Ebélé.

The lack of traceability of the bag is also the cause of bad consumption habits. “If the sellers do not know how to answer customer questions about the manufacture and treatment of cotton, it is better to move on”, advises Antoine Saint-Pierre. Good news for consumers, the law Anti-waste for a circular economy plans to make the labeling of the origin of textiles compulsory from 1 January 2023.

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