Cotton Tote Bags Come with a Big Environmental Cost

August 26, 2021

For years now, many consumers have made an effort to cut down on their use of plastic bags by relying on cotton totes instead. Along with being better for the environment than non-biodegradable, single-use plastic, cotton bags can also serve as walking billboards for any organization that places their logo upon them. As a result, these totes can be spotted in stores the world over, emblazoned with branding from supermarkets, magazines, charities, and radio stations. 

But while cotton bags are not as environmentally destructive as their plastic counterparts, they aren’t exactly sustainably produced either. According to a 2018 study, an organic cotton tote would need to be used 20,000 times in order to offset the environmental impact of its manufacturing process. That means someone would need to use a single bag every day for 54 years. Processing cotton requires an immense amount of water, and the final product is nearly impossible to recycle. In fact, only about 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced annually will ever make it to a textile depository for sustainable disposal. 

Given the enormous impact of cotton production on the environment, it’s possible that people could become confused about whether they should continue using cotton bags or return to plastic. “We end up in an environmental what-about-ism that leaves consumers with the idea that there is no solution,” said Melanie Dupuis, an environmental studies professor at Pace University. While some companies have halted production of cotton bags altogether, others like the Australian beauty brand Aesop announced that their bags will now be made with a 60-40 percent blend of recycled and organic cotton. “It will cost us 15 percent more,” said Aesop’s chief customer officer Suzanne Santos, “but it reduces water by 70 to 80 percent.”


  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of producing cotton tote bags?
  2. Do you think more companies should follow Aesop’s lead and start producing bags made of recycled cotton? Why or why not?

Source: Grace Cook, “The Cotton Tote Crisis,” The New York Times, August 24, 2021.