Dmitri Siegel | Essays

Paper, Plastic, or Canvas?

Whale tote bag, Hugo Guiness, 2008

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.

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.

Posted in: Business

Comments [40]

Awesome article... I work for an environmental company, and we are constantly asked to design promotional canvas bags. There is always an environmental cost to everything we do.

Too much of a good thing (even good intentions) inevitably leads to the opposite effect.

Maybe we could design a bag that says “I only own this one bag” or “I live alone in the closet”.
Loïc Boyer

I always saved plastic bags and reused them as much as possible. They do offer a flexibility that tote bags do not: if I need to pick up dog mess, or wrap up something bad to throw out, or I need a temporary shoe liner, etc. then I had the option of sacrificing from my war chest of perpetually reused plastic bags. But what if I have 40 totes in the closet? Can I use one of those to line a messy bin after painting? can I use one to keep wet or dirty clothes in when biking or camping?

Of course, I can buy a box of plastic bags to have on hand for these occassions, and on the whole I think it is best to reduce their consumption. Mr. Siegel is nonetheless right to show potential or actual contradictions which will emerge in our attempts to live ethically - it ain't easy being green.

(One more picky issue that's admittedly easily solved - what about carrying meat or cleaning products in my reusable bag? The last thing our health needs is leaky chicken breast all over our burlap satchels.)

actually, vinyl sales were the highest they've been in 17 years. That's cool, right?

Perhaps it's the assumption that every creative idea should be monetised and promoted that is wearing us out (and the planet too). It's not the poor old tote that is to blame. It's all those freebies.

But if you should ever decide to design a tote just for the fun of it, a workshop that is both eco and friendly (if a little slow by latter-day Flash-enhanced Net standards) isThe Fabric Press. They don't exactly mass produce there. Every item you order is hand-made just for you.

Is there an ironic twist to all this? It's not so cheap you probably won't want to give the stuff away ...

i'm with gareth. dude, the vinyl LP is alive and kicking! you can kiss CDs goodbye:


and that article is from 2007!

My friends and I have even one upped environmentalists with our newest efforts. Thrifting blank t-shirts and printing on them. This I think is the truest, bluest non-harmful cycle that not only supports others, but has the least impact on the environment.

Of course the market is limited. Thrift stores get new blanks probably daily, but never enough. So its never going to completely cut out the new shirt cycle, but its a small step in sustainability that should be happening elsewhere.

Perhaps if you have too many canvas bags, we can start an overprint movement with those bags and continue this paradox unto another paradox.

Will someone please call the Department of Redundancy Department. Is it just me or was anyone else finding it odd that the caption below the photos in this post said exactly what was on the bags (except Alphabet). Then right below the captions in the body of the post it was repeated yet again. Sorry, over it now

A very enjoyable article however I would just like to make one correction. I am from Ireland and the statement that "governments from Ireland...have banned their [plastic bags] distribution altogether" is untrue. There is in fact a €0.22c tax on every plastic bag purchased.


The right link for the stat above is here.

Several of the stores that I shop at are providing "canvas" bags that are actually made from recycled plastic bags, and they're charging $0.99 for them, implying that the production cost is fairly low. I'm curious to know what the impact is of making these bags.

I like them because they're sturdier than the plastic bags, with much better handles. I can easily carry four of them, which is enough for a normal shopping run for the week (assuming there's no toilet paper or other bulky items).

Great article.

My neighbourhood grocery store stopped providing plastic bags altogether (if you don't count the baggies in the produce section). Now they offer "green" bags for 99¢. Between me and my two roommates (all students and bachelors), we often find ourselves out at the grocery store without our handy canvas bags. So we buy one more, because, hey, they're only a buck (less expensive than walking home to grab a bag). We have about 30 green bags under our sink.

For the grocery store, located in amidst a heavy student population, it's a PR opportunity, and more likely, a moneygrab. How many Mac and Cheese-scarfing 19 year olds are going to remember to bring their canvas handbags? How many student households have 30 green bags under their sinks?
Tom Froese

I'm also a steadfast user of the 99 cent reusable bags my local grocery store sells. I do love their sturdiness and multipurpose possibilities. However, I use plastic bags to line my kitchen garbage bin, and have found myself buying a fistful of 5 cent plastic bags the grocery store provides and stuffing them into my reusable bag for garbage. How backwards is that?

Great topic. Talking about the accumulation of so many reusable bags is an interesting one that I feel people don’t discus nearly enough. If we all are collecting so many of them wont ideas of the over use of paper and then of plastic come into the world of canvas? As well as what are the environmental effects of people throwing out the extra reusable bag because it is only a matter of time before people starting doing so. I also wonder if it’s just a matter of time before there is a “better” option available and the use of the canvas bag becomes a thing of the 2000’s.

Great post.

Noticing the barrage of reusable bags out there, our agency decided to design one that we thought had "top of pile" value:


I used paper bags for many years. I recycled them at the curb.
Then plastic bags came along. I did not recycle them (at the time, where?), so I said "paper" when asked.
Then, the reusable bags appeared. They are ugly. But if you bought enough food at one store I shop at, they gave you one free. Eventually, I had 5 of them.
So now I only use reusable bags. They are made from poly propylene (I think) with cloth like handles. Quite tough. Ugly. But who cares?
Now, the only time I use paper or plastic is when I forget my tote bags. Maybe, 1 out of 8 trips to the store. No big deal. I just use paper and recycle or plastic and recycle that too at the large chain that takes them back.
Like most Americans, I can only use a car to get groceries. I don't care what my bags look like. I suppose in 15 years, they will be retro looking.


Everything we have and make and do has an environmental impact. Absolutely everything. Some products are lighter, travel better. Some are recyclable, reduce the need for more raw materials. All this aside...

The forgotten impact of plastic bags is the cultural deficit they have created. And as suggested in this article, perhaps this is what the tote bag offers. When things are meaningful to us we tend to hold on to them, and not just for environmental reasons.

This 'meaning' can be varied: from memories of grandma (hand made is better) to ego-driven status symbols (marc jacobs is better) and, yes, even eco-driven moral symbols (hand-picked organic cotton is better).

There's no guarantee we won't collect 200 different variteies of them. There's no guarantee we won't throw a few out. Nor is there a guarantee that we'll always have them handy and use a few plastic bags here and there.

Personally, I prefer to have a somewhat wasteful yet meaningful life, instead of a utterly wasteful and meaningless life.
Michèle Champagne

As bah humbag (sorry, had to slip that one in there) as it is, I stood in a long line of grocery shoppers behind a couple with their myriad of canvas bags, the poor check out girl trying to shovel in their fridge packs of Diet Coke and individually wrapped cheese slices and loads of other ridiculously packaged items, and in my head I was cursing them and their "greenness" for holding up the entire 10 items or less line. Sometimes it's more considerate to just use plastic.

Nice piece.

Yep. Our current obsession with reusable bags is symbolic and absurd.

It's not so much our shopping bags that have a negative effect on the environment, but what we do with them. Day after day after day we fill them up with crap that we dont need.

We will never shop our way to a healthy planet. The assumption that we can is misguided to say the least.

Agree w Xanthe. So glad that green is a daily dissected news topic now, but it continues to be on a surface gloss over a hyperconsumptive faulty economics lifestyle. Arty bags are great! Overproducing them, stupid. The real issue is self responsibility and stewardship. A stomach-turning explanation on plastics overloaded planet in "The World Without Us," Ch.9--free! http://www.worldwithoutus.com/toc.html

I have a cabinet shelf devoted to totes, may not use them all, but I don't leave home without some. Always have some in the trunk, and there is always one quick-stuff pouch version in my pack. If you don't want to buy a quick stuff type, by all means, reuse plastic bags, as they stuff smaller than anything! I also save bread/veggie bags to reuse for produce, bulk, and yes, doggie doo.

Once we connect our daily actions with the real meaning (doing our part against environmental meltdown, instead of contributing to it), being bag ready is like tying shoelaces- you do it automatically.

And while still learning the habit, remember, if you carried it by hand to the check-out, you can carry it by hand out the door, and if it's more of a load, grab some plastic bags out of the recycling container at the entry to every grocery store. If you have an accumulation of totes, hand some off to parents/friends for their trunks and closets. We're human, we're adaptable, and we've only had plastic bags for a few decades. Let's get over it already.


This article brings up really good questions.

Here are more:
What's really better? Paper cup or ceramic mug?
Every time you use a ceramic mug, you must wash it. You end up using dish soap which not only gets drained into the waterways, but ask yourself this...how is the soap manufactured and what about the plastic bottle that it comes in? And how about that sponge you used to wash it with? Also have you used the same ONE mug your ENTIRE life? Probably not. Think about the energy and resources it takes to create ceramic mugs.

Same questions apply for woven cotton towels vs. paper napkins.

Has anyone done research to find out the real environmental impact of both sides? This would be interesting to find out.

As Michèle Champagne stated:
Everything we have and make and do has an environmental impact.

I guess we just have to choose what's gentler to our planet. But are we truly informed about what's better?

I think company's were ticked pink when the reuable cotton bag craze came about because there was another surface to cover with a logo. It also made the brand image go up in the cunsumer's eye because the company is producing a product to protect the planet. Now, most consumers who have accumulated a collection of cloth bags are well aware of the paradox that the reusable bag has created.

I think company's were tickled pink when the reuable cotton bag craze came about because there was another surface to cover with a logo. It also made the brand image go up in the cunsumer's eye because the company is producing a product to protect the planet. Now, most consumers who have accumulated a collection of cloth bags are well aware of the paradox that the reusable bag has created.

I feel the canvas tote is a great invention. It helps the environment and consumerism in society at the same time. It used to be that the canvas tote was a simple bag with no design but today, design has allowed for personal expression on each person's individual bag.This individualism can lead to more and more people using canvas bags and can lead to the replacement of some of the 1000 or so plastic bags that each family brings home every year.
Michelle S. EN322

I think the reusable cotton canvas bags are a great idea to help reduce the waste plastic tends to accumulate. I also noticed that this concept has been expanded to utilize said plastic waste (such as bottles) to make recycled polyurethane fashionable (and habit forming purchase inducing) bags. Stores such as Supermarkets (Whole Foods, Stop and Shop), Pharmacies (CVS, Duane Reade) and trendy apparel (Forever 21, Atrium) have implemented this. In addition to preserving our planet, Earth, the addictive purchasing nature of these products aids our failing economy, in a small kind of way.
stephanie l. EN 322

What is most interesting to me about the proliferation of canvas totes is their role as fashion objects, and by that I'm referring to the phenomenon of fashion creating obsolescence. My first exposure to the rebirth of the canvas tote was through hip downtown scene kids and punk kids in NYC (I dont mean punk like mowhawks, but rather punk by ideology...despite appearance) who seized the tote long before Anya Hindmarch created a mainstream re-introducion of the tote (capitalizing on its use by the "cool kids.") In any case, recently I've encountered many situations in which the canvas tote is being rejected by the same crowd that helped make them popular. One could speculate that this is because their propulsion into mainstream culture directly correlates with the loss of their appeal to underground culture, but I speculate that its because what the canvas tote has come to represent, many of the points you have outlined above and the painful truth evident to only a few, that our world is over "designed" and commercialized. Promotional totes are sooo lame!

i wouldn't even think about which baq i want b/c i'd choose all of them! there so neat and creative and that's what i look for! i've been looking for a marc jacobs bag like that!
natacha ramirez

Don't forget the german, already iconic bag made out of jute fibre:

This bag is a symbol for the green movement in germany and probably still in use by 100%-ecologists... (but totally "out";-)

I didn't understand this part:

"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%."

How would the plastic tax decrease canvas tote usage? The tax certainly decreased the usage of plastic bags, so what are those Irish lugging their groceries home in? I would assume some type of reusable bag or cart, or bags in a cart.

Maybe the author doesn't understand the definition of "inhibit"?

Also, a note to Kayk. If you think it is environmentally destructive to use soap to clean out a mug, I seriously urge you to investigate the methods used to make trees into your alternative, the paper cup. Far more water pollution is created than you can dream of creating to clean the mug. And also consider the plastic lid that goes on top of that paper cup, which is going to be part of the environment long after your body disintegrates into elemental components. The real problem of plastic is not just the cost and the manufacturing (which uses mostly foreign petroleum, consider also the environmental destruction of the wars that are being fought to maintain control over oil sources), but also the end story. What really happens to that bag when you're done? What happens when it ends up in a stream, the branches of a tree, the landfill? And don't kid yourself, very few of them actually get recycled.

If you know you're going shopping, bring some bags. Overestimate how many you will need. Keep some in the trunk of your car, or close to the door so you are less likely to forget them. It's not just about cache and being cool. It's about sustainability, it's about a planet that is not going out of style anytime soon, so we better take good care of it.

I'm just wondering how much it costs to recycle plastic bags. If recycling costs more than creating a plastic bag, isn't it better just waste? Also I want ot know how much making canvas tote uses oil.

very nice.thanks for sharing.
tanjila jesmeen

This reminds me of the big twine debate of 1742.

pretty cool bags+!!

I never thought about what a phenomenon the canvas tote movement was until reading this article. It's a shame that what began with good intentions could now possibly be just as bad as the problem it intended to fix. However, I think that the answer to this particular issue of sustainability is more than just convincing people to choose one material over the other. The real answer is in convincing people to change their behaviors rather than convincing them to buy another product. It's easy for people to feel like socially responsible individuals by buying a designer tote, but the real challenge for designers is to persuade them to actually act like it.
Sam R.

Great post!

Every time I see a tote bag in a store, I have thought about its affects, use and history. I am glad to see an article written about it.

"...Graphic design’s ability to generate options and choices may turn a sustainable idea into an environmental calamity."

Fast forward a year later and this statement is absolutely true. The idea behind the tote bag is a great concept but people just end up not reusing the bag.

The best environmental practice I have seen yet (of paper, plastic or canvas) is that of a low budget grocery store, Bottom Dollar. They do not offer free plastic bags and instead provide boxes that the food was bulk packaged in. The store charges for plastic bags and also sells reusable tote bags. Whether this is a budgetary plan or environmental, more grocery stores should implement this action.
Jon P

Very interesting post. Like many I've taken plastic bags for granted because they are everywhere and I've used them for many different uses. I've never recycled them outside of reusing them in my house for different uses. I don't use canvas totes. I've always felt that they weren't very efficient for carrying groceries. And how many of them would I need to lug around at the store to get my groceries home? Six? Eight? Ten? When I go grocery shopping I always have at least four plastic bags worth of groceries I take home, sometimes double or triple that. So I've never felt that canvas totes were an efficient option for me, even if they are a green option. Perhaps having forty in my closet would not be a bad thing in my case. IF I could remember to take them with me to the store; I'm a college student with a bad memory. Like another commenter said, "How many Mac and Cheese-scarfing 19 year olds are going to remember to bring their canvas handbags?"

Admittedly, the plastic bag is harmful to the environment, particularly because of its proliferation. Regardless of my personal opinion towards canvas totes and whether I use them or not, the author makes a very good point when he says, "the environmental benefit does not come from people acquiring bags. It comes from people reusing them." Pointing out that mass production of canvas totes risks running into the same problem as the mass production of plastic bags is a very interesting observation, even if canvas is better for the environment. He is very correct in his statement, "it is unclear that a consumable can counteract the effects of consumption."

Awesome post. I’m glad Dmitri has brought the whole “canvas tote vs. plastic bag” controversy to our attention. Not only did he grab our attention through our acts of being environmentally friendly (or not), he points out that design can have a huge impact on the purchase of a canvas tote.

Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web.


Jobs | June 13