Amidst all the despair in the last few years about the slow extinction of various design-friendly formats — the vinyl LP, the newspaper, the book, etc. — one vehicle for graphic design has vaulted to almost instant ubiquity: the canvas tote. The medium is not new, of course. Public television stations have been giving them away during fund-raisers for decades and L.L. Bean’s "Boat and Tote" has been a New England staple even longer. But the timely environmental appeal of these reusable bags and the easy application of graphics catapulted the canvas tote from the health food store to the runway in a few short years. Graphic designers have embraced the form as a venue for their imagery and messages on par with the tee shirt. The ensuing glut of these bags however raises questions about the sustainability of any product regardless of the intention behind it, and the role that design plays in consumption.
Whale tote bag, Hugo Guiness, 2008
Whale tote bag, Hugo Guiness, 2008
I'm Not a Plastic Bag, tote bag, Anya Hindmarch, 2007
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the recent canvas tote craze really started, but there was a pivotal moment two years ago when Anya Hindmarch released the "I am Not a Plastic Bag" tote in collaboration with the global social change movement We Are What We Do. The bag was originally sold in limited numbers at Hindmarch boutiques, Colette and Dover Street Market in London, but when it went into wide release at Sainsbury’s 80,000 people lined up to get one. When the bag hit stores in Taiwan, there was so much demand that the riot police had to be called in to control a stampede, which sent 30 people to the hospital. Suddenly the formerly crunchy canvas tote had cache.
Jacobs by Marc Jacobs..., tote bag, Marc Jacobs, 2008
Marc Jacobs skewered his own eponymous empire with his "marc by marc for marc" tote. This fascination with cheap bags seemed like part reaction to, and part extension of the high-end handbag frenzy that gripped the fashion industry for much of the 00s. It had all the same qualities of exclusivity and brand envy, but also seemed at least in part to be an acknowledgement that things had gone too far. Was Mr. Jacobs’ self-mocking tote a mea culpa for the astronomical hand-bag prices he had helped engineer at Louis Vuiton or was it a sly attempt to mainstream the phenomenon?
Simultaneous with the fashion world’s affair with the tote, the graphic design community seemed to rediscover this humble sack. The canvas tote is a great medium for graphic design because it is flat and easy to print on. The canvas provides a beautiful off-white ground and the material is as wonderfully suited to silk-screen printing as primed canvas is to oil paint. The recent show at Open Space in Beacon, NY demonstrated the material appeal of the bags and the adaptability of their flat surface. Short-run printing and the quick transfer of graphic files make it remarkably easy to produce a relatively high quality bag. Design blogs have become enthralled by the never-ending stream of canvas totes — each one made unique by a clever and/or beautiful graphic.
Resistance is Fertile, tote bag, Adrian Johnson, 2008
But the primary reason that designers in both fields have embraced canvas totes so quickly and nearly universally is their 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. Reusing canvas bags could reduce the number of plastic bags that are used and discarded every year. According to Vincent Cobb, founder of reusablebags.com, somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. The impact of the super-thin plastic bags given away free with purchase at super-markets and shops is so severe that governments from Ireland to San Francisco to China have banned their distribution altogether. With the devastating effects of global warming and pollution becoming a feature of everyday life, designers and consumers alike latched onto reusable canvas tote as a tangible step they could take to help the environment. Canvas totes are often cited as an example of how good design can help the environment because of the promise that they will replace plastic bags.
Alphabet, tote bag, Daniel Eatock, 2008
Ironically, however plastic bag problem can in large part be traced back to the quality of its design as well. Before the introduction of the ultra thin plastic bags in the 1980s groceries were packed almost exclusively in paper bags. Plastic bags were touted as a way to save trees. Within a few years plastic was dominant and now commands 80% of grocery and supermarket traffic. Comparing a plastic bag to a paper bag it is easy to see why: the ultra thin plastic bag is a vastly superior design. It consumes 40 percent less energy, generates 80 percent less solid waste, produces 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and releases up to 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes. A plastic bag costs roughly a quarter as much to produce as a paper bag and is substantially lighter so it takes a great less more fossil fuel to transport. Plastic bags are among the most highly reused items in the home and are just as recyclable as paper.
The problem is that what is marvelous about an individual plastic bag becomes menacing when multiplied out to accommodate a rapidly growing global economy. The low cost of the bags allowed merchants to give them away and despite the strength of an individual bag, they are routinely packed with a single item or double-bagged unnecessarily. The bag was so cleverly designed that there is simply no barrier to their indiscriminate distribution. Their incredible durability means it can take up to hundreds of years for them to decompose (a process that releases hazardous toxins). Although plastic bags are recyclable, the evidence suggests that even after ten years, in-store recycling programs have barely managed to achieve a one percent recycle rate. It is simply too easy and efficient to keep making and distributing more plastic bags. Meanwhile consumers mistakenly try to recycle the bags through their curbside recycling programs (perhaps because of the recycle symbols printed on the bags) creating a sorting nightmare at recycling facilities across the country.
For Like Ever, tote bag, Vllg, 2005
Are we headed for the same kind of catch-22 with the adoption of the cleverly designed canvas tote with its renewable materials and infinite potential for customization? I am certainly an outlier in this case but I recently found twenty-three canvas totes in my house. Most of them were given to me as promotional materials for design studios, start-ups, boutique shops; more than one came from an environmental event or organization; one even commemorates a friend’s wedding. A local community group recently delivered a reusable shopping bag to every house in my neighborhood to promote local holiday shopping. On the one hand all this interest in reusable bags is inspiring, but just like the story of Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” it also reveals the fundamental contradiction of the canvas tote phenomenon. Best intentions are almost immediately buried under an avalanche of conspicuous consumption and proliferation of choice. The environmental promise of reusable bags becomes pretty dubious when there are closets and drawers full of them in every home.
This contradiction can largely be traced back to the influence of graphic design. Once this gorgeous flat surface presented itself, it quickly became simply a substrate for messaging, branding, promotion, etc. Judging by the cost, producing one tote is roughly equivalent to producing 400 plastic bags. That’s fine if you actually use the tote 400 times, but what if you just end up with 40 totes in your closet? Once the emphasis shifts from reusing a bag to having a bag that reflects your status or personality, the environmental goal starts drifting out of sight.
I could not find any data on the subject of how much the use of canvas totes has decreased the number of plastic bags, but at best the totes can only be a catalyst for the act of reusing. Designers are correct in thinking that making a more appealing bag increases the likelihood that it will be reused, but the environmental benefit does not come from people acquiring bags. It comes from people reusing them. Successful attempts to reduce the number of plastic bags have all focused on (not surprisingly) depressing the consumption of plastic bags. For example, in 2001, Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person. In 2002 they introduced what they called a PlasTax — 15 cents for every plastic bag consumed. The program reduced consumption of plastic bags in that country by 90%! This seems to undercut the whole strategy of selling canvas totes as a way to help the environment. Based on the Irish example, even a 15 cent price-tag might actually inhibit the use of canvas totes by 90%. In terms of actually reducing the number of plastic bags, programs like the one at IKEA which charges customers 5 cents per plastic bag and donates the proceeds to a conservation group are probably 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.
The canvas tote is a great example of the power and the paradox of design in a consumer society. On the one hand design has allowed for personal expression, and fantastic variation in an otherwise mundane object. Every well-designed tote has the potential to replace some of the estimated 1000 plastic bags that each family brings home every year. The aesthetic power of a single design raised more awareness about the impact of plastic bags on our environment than any government or non-governmental organization. On the other hand, it is unclear that a consumable can counteract the effects of consumption. The designs that make each bag unique contribute to an over-abundance of things that are essentially identical and the constant stream of newness discourages reuse. Just as the remarkable efficiency of the plastic bag ended up making it a menace to the environment, graphic design’s ability to generate options and choices may turn a sustainable idea into an environmental calamity.