A Provocative History of the Canvas Bag Craze


Canvas tote bags are becoming de rigueur for both the eco-minded and the fashionable: Clever, name-brand designs abound, while the disastrous environmental impact of plastic bags is reaching mainstream awareness.  Design Observer has a nice little essay, surveying how the entire trend evolved and also showing some highlights in the history of the canvas-tote design.


What’s ironic is that canvas bags—even though they address the huge problem that plastic bags pose—are also fighting how well-designed the plastic bag was:

Ironically, however the 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 1980’s, 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 deal less fossil fuel to transport. Plastic bags are among the most highly reused items in the home and are just as recyclable as paper.

Of course the bags themselves create problems by their very success:

The problem is that what is marvelous about an individual plastic bag becomes menacing when multiplied 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.

The entire essay is definitely worth a read. In addition to the plastic-bag information highlighted above, there’s a good roundup of clever canvas designs, such as Marc Jacob’s self-satirizing tote designed by “Jacobs by Marc Jacobs for Marc by Marc Jacobs.”


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.