Tote bags are a major trend this summer season, and many consumers—myself included—are intrigued by its popularity! After seeing this specific tote bag both on Pinterest and in-store, I was curious as to how sustainable this Urban Outfitters bag may be.
Urban Outfitters already has a history of having a hostile work environment and being discriminatory, as they have been sued for wage practices, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, and age discrimination. Additionally, employees were forced to work in person during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of all this, their level of sustainability is nowhere close to good enough to salvage their reputation. It was astonishing to find out that a company as impactful and far-reaching as Urban Outfitters do next to nothing to work towards sustainability.
This tote bag really has the audacity to be $24 after failing to pay their manufacturers properly and using unsustainable material. GROUNDTRUTH's Shopping Tote 1.1 is a great alternative that uses recycled ripstop fabric to produce, and costs €29 (around $35). Unfortunately, there aren't very many sustainable alternatives to tote bags that are affordable to the general public. Overall, Urban Outfitters has the potential and ability to be more sustainable but chooses not to, which is why this tote bag unfortunately deserves a rating of 0 out of 3 planets.
The Flower District Tote Bag is made entirely of 100% cotton, according to the information on Urban Outfitters’ website. There is no information on whether the cotton is conventional or organic. Cotton is sustainable to some extent. It is recyclable, and can be used for a variety of different purposes. However, cotton farming causes soil degradation, and the production of conventional cotton requires chemicals and pesticides—both harmful to the environment. Soil degradation is the decline of soil quality which can involve contamination (i.e. chemicals, pollution), decrease in fertility, and soil acidity. The chemicals used in the production of cotton pollute the environment, but could also be absorbed into the cotton itself. Toxic chemicals such as silicone waxes and petroleum scours are used in the process of producing conventional cotton. Exposure to toxic chemicals or pesticides can be extremely harmful to humans, possibly leading to detrimental health problems such as brain damage, fetal damage, and sterility. Body heat and sweating actually speed up the process of the residues of these harmful substances being absorbed into your skin. Additionally, cotton production requires a lot of water which has directly contributed to the diminishing of the Aral Sea. If this bag is made with organic cotton, it would not be very much more sustainable. Organic cotton does not use pesticides, chemicals, or genetic modifications, but instead requires a lot more water to grow.
To make this cotton tote bag, cotton is harvested and put through the ginning process. The ginning process removes the cotton from its stem and leaves. This cotton is then shipped to be cleaned, flattened, and spun into thread. The thread is woven into fabric, washed with chemicals, and dyed or printed on.
Unfortunately, cotton tote bags are extremely unsustainable. It takes land, water, chemicals, pesticides, and a lot of energy to produce. The chemical fertilizers used contribute to eutrophication, which is when a body of water becomes overly rich with nutrients and minerals. This leads to an overproduction of carbon dioxide, which interrupts the ecosystem by causing the decrease of animal populations—among other harmful effects. Production-wise, it is much more sustainable to produce single-use plastic bags because of the excessive resources cotton production requires. Usage-wise, it is—of course--more sustainable to regularly use a tote bag. Cotton totes can be recycled, but recycling textiles is a difficult process (in the U.S at least).
Urban Outfitters is not doing anything to change their methods of production. The only ways they claim to be working towards sustainability are installing LED lights across stores to use 70% less electricity, using recycled and up-cycled materials and objects for their stores’ interiors, and using recyclable packaging. The supply chains stated on parent company URBN’s website which are primarily in China, Vietnam, and India provide no details on their manufacturing processes. It is impossible to tell how their products are made due to the fact that their suppliers are all imported from other countries. As a consumer, I feel deceived and disheartened. Urban Outfitters can and should do better in terms of transparency. The lack of information that the brand provides to consumers is both an obvious sign of unethical and unsustainable practices and a major disappointment.
In their Transparency in Supply Chains Statement, Urban Outfitters has vocalized that they are are committed to operating in “lawful, ethical, and responsible manner” and that they expect their supply chains to do the same. UO also has a Code of Conduct that they use to assess manufacturers to ensure that they are complying with laws and treat workers fairly. They also state that when problems are identified, UO develops an action plan to resolve these issues. However, there is no legitimate evidence that their supply chains are ethical or that Urban Outfitters proactively addresses issues within the garment industry. The statement also lacks detail on their Code of Conduct and provides very general and broad information on their guidelines. Interestingly, the Transparency in Supply Chains Statement is provided on UO’s UK site, but not their U.S site. This is important to note as they choose to provide this information to some consumers, but not all.
Urban Outfitters’ parent company, UBRN, provides a list of their top supply chains, which are located in mostly China, Vietnam, and India as well as in Cambodia, Guatemala, Turkey, Taiwan, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Egypt. China, Vietnam, and India’s garment industries are all known to be problematic and have miserable working conditions. Their garment industries force their workers to work excessive overtime to make ends meet as they are not paid a living wage. Urban Outfitters does not seem dedicated to providing fair wages and working conditions to those who produce their products based on the general information we have on foreign garment industries as well as their Transparency in Supply Chains Statement.
Urban Outfitters does not have any initiatives that aim to produce their goods more sustainably. They have only stated their commitment to use recyclable packaging, partnering with supposedly sustainable brands (i.e. Hydroflask), and continuing their Urban Renewal line—a collection of vintage, recycled, and upcycled products. Because Urban Outfitters is such a large corporation, they most definitely have the capacity, ability, and financial standing to make their commodities more sustainably. It is very evident that their sustainability initiatives only meet sustainability standards at a bare minimum. This tote bag, as well as UO’s presumed efforts to be more environment-friendly, are both underwhelming and concerning.