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Siegel identifies designers as particular culprits in the oversaturation of tote bags. He notes that because the bags are large, flat, and easily printed on, they’re great for embellishment and product placement. They’re given away with purchases at galleries, bookstores, eyeglass boutiques, grocers, tattoo parlors. Plus they’ve been hyped. He describes the 2007 launch of the “I’m not a plastic bag” tote, by fashion designer Anya Hindmarch:
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.
Whether they're delicately handled designer goods or a promotional product dirtied by daily wear, few totes are made to last long enough to obtain the number of uses required to reach resource-expenditure parity with the plastic bags they were meant to supplant. Though they promise timelessness and sustainability, they develop holes, straps come undone, seams disintegrate. They become fouled with stains and grime.
Many fashion brands sell bags for hundreds of dollars, with totes tracking the increase in economic inequality. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Ellen Gamerman cites the same Hindmarch bag as evidence of the problem with turning bags into display symbols:
“Sarah De Belen, a 35-year-old mother of two from Hoboken, N.J., says she uses about 30 or 40 plastic bags at the grocery store every week. Late last year, she saw a woman at the supermarket with a popular canvas tote by London designer Anya Hindmarch and promptly purchased one online for about $45.
“But Ms. De Belen says she soon realized she'd need 12 of them to accommodate an average grocery run. ‘It can hold, like, a head of lettuce,’ she says. Besides, she adds, it's too nice to load up with diapers or dripping chicken breasts.”
Every product is manufactured and consumed with some ideal in mind. Pictures of tote bags—such as those from stock photo websites or advertisements—make the ideals we project on them visible. People are depicted carrying fresh fruits and vegetables in their tote bags at a sunny farmers’ market. These people are seen in intimate groups. They wear casual, modest, warm-weather clothing. They don’t handle digital devices. They take their bags to the beach, the park, art openings, concerts, through cosmopolitan urban communities and idyllic rural escapes. They are fulfilled and creative. They are middle class. They inhabit the landscape of tote-bag dreams: healthy, waste-conscious and ecologically responsible, conservatively ethnically diverse, carefree but productive, connected, affluent, tolerant, adventurous, optimistic.