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Your cotton tote bag may be ruining the environment.

Updated: Oct 6, 2018

Tote Bags

Tote Bags are the favs of event organisers. They are provided even when there is nothing to be carried within (which I find puzzling). A common mistake is that organisers assume that a re-usable material automatically makes the bag sustainable. The current favourite – cotton tote bags, are being marketed as the “green” option. However, in order to consider if it is truly green, you have to look at where the cotton originates from. The same is true for cotton T-shirts provided to volunteers, participants and as event mementos.

Cotton totes maybe harmful to the environment
Cotton totes maybe harmful to the environment


Cotton is a renewable, natural product. However, given the high demand for it, current methods of growing cotton have become unsustainable. The key impact areas are intensive use of water, pesticides and converting natural ecosystems to cotton farms. These methods threaten our ecosystems, degrade soils and pollute rivers and lakes. Therefore, convention ways of growing cotton is not sustainable – don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!

Infographic on why conventional cotton is bad
Infographic on why conventional cotton is bad

Solution - Sustainable Cotton

Fortunately there is a solution and that is sustainably farmed cotton. Sustainably farmed cotton uses water efficiently, maintains the health of soils, conserves natural ecosystems and reduces the harmful impact of pesticides through better management practices.

I asked Dragos Necula, Founder of Etrican, a sustainable fashion line in Singapore, to share his views on sustainably sourced cotton.

1. Is the pricing between sustainable and unsustainable cotton substantially different?

There is a difference of roughly 30% between the price of regular cotton and the price of organic cotton. There are several reasons for this:

- growing organic cotton is more labour intensive - low impact dyes tend to be slightly more expensive than regular ones - organic cotton supply chain are less likely to cut corners - workers are paid fair wages, no child labour, proper health and safety, reasonable working hours etc. This can make labour more expensive. - some organic cotton products carry certifications (e.g. GOTS). Most often these have costs associated with them, which will reflect in the price of the products. - there is significantly less demand for organic cotton when compared to conventional, so it's harder to achieve economies of scale that typically help bring prices down.

Etrican for example, chooses to absorb some of the difference in pricing by reducing profit margin. So we would retail a single plain tee made of certified organic cotton for about $20 which is equivalent to a regular cotton tee in H&M for instance.

2. In your view, does the price difference justify sustainability?

More to the point, yes, I think the price difference is worth the increase in sustainability. That's a very personal decision though - it varies from person to person and organisation to organisation.

In conclusion…..

Sustainable cotton can be acquired through a few initiatives such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), and Cotton Connect. The next time you decide to provide cotton tote bags, remember to ask your vendor if the cotton is coming through one of the above mentioned initiatives.

Remember, providing cotton tote bags is NOT environmentally friendly unless the cotton is produced sustainably. Otherwise, you are just adding to the environmental problem.

Read our research study on event-goers preference for Goodie Bags here.

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