Saturday, May 03, 2014

Is a $300 canvas tote bag a #firstworld luxury?

Well, yes. A $300 canvas tote bag is a #firstworld luxury and the ability to buy one is a nice option to have. On the other hand, it is perhaps the only ethical thing to do assuming you have the means to afford a $300 tote. Let me explain.

I happen to live in NYC which requires a carryall tote bag for everyday use and shopping. Most NYC dwellers, including myself, make do without a personal car which means that we shop more frequently and in smaller amounts. Unlike our suburban counterparts who can drive to a supermarket, Costco, Walmart, etc. and load up their cars or SUVs, we rely on bipedal motion and the homely tote bag to re-stock on essential items.

My old canvas tote was beginning to show its age and thus I was on the hunt for a decently made replacement. After some reflection, I decided this meant I needed to find a functional carryall that was assembled and manufactured in a country with robust health and safety regulations.  These days it is standard practice to manufacture in the lowest cost locations. Low cost often means lax standards regarding worker safety. You may have heard about the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in 2013 which killed more than 1,000 workers.

I realize there is no easy solution here. By buying a bag made in a low-cost overseas factory, you are, at least in the short term, actually helping a worker who is supporting her family and may otherwise be unemployed (or perhaps working under even worse conditions).

However, it strikes me that there are more defensible choices for a #firstworld consumer. If you can afford it, why not support minimum worker standards and purchase products made under those conditions? Or if you wish to genuinely improve the economic livelihood and self-sufficiency of Third World workers, look into co-operative products. Links to both options can be found below.

In the meantime, I was prepared to pay more for a new tote bag but though I didn't realize how much more I would have to pay. I ended up going for a canvas tote by Chapman Bags whose workshop is located in England (Cumbria to be more precise).

I also had some specific functional requirements which the Chapman bag provided that I couldn't find anywhere else. These were:
  • Water resistant interior for easy cleaning
  • Dual-purpose handles that can be carried by hand or slipped over the shoulder
  • Sufficient interior width and volume to store liter sized bottles
The bag I decided to buy was their tan fishing tote bag, which retails for 115 GBP (incl. 20% VAT). The fishing tote also has an optional, removable rubberized liner that is water resistant. Funnily enough, it's also on sale now at 25% off (85 GBP) although I bought mine at full price. Even #firstworld consumers can appreciate a sale.

Below are additional canvas/leather tote bag options I came across. And the last option, of course, is to make your own tote bag as a DIY project.