Thursday, 7 November 2019

In praise (and criticism) of the overflow bag

Today it's my mum's birthday. (And it doesn't factor into any of my PINs or passwords, so don't even try.) She is one of my favourite people in the world. On her recent visit to Berlin, she introduced the concept of the "overflow bag" to me:

If you have your usual handbag, shoulder bag, or rucksack, an overflow bag — often a tote bag — can easily be stuffed away inside. It serves as a way to catch the unforeseen things you might pick up or cast off over the course of the day, during spontaneous trips to the library or supermarket, or when admitting it is in fact too warm to wear a scarf or jumper but there's no room to stow it away in your primary bag.

This reminded me that last year, I workshopped a piece about tote bags with my writing group. I sent the pitch to a lot of places, but they rejected it. However, I still want to get it out there, and dedicate it to my wonderful mum who has always championed my writing practice. She has played a major role in making me the resourceful person I am today, in turn learning that from her own mother, who sadly passed away this summer. This is for you too, Grandma.


Tote bags are the new slogan T-shirts: that is, an unshakeable symbol of identity that represents our throwaway society rather than counteracting it. Roomy and handy, I believe it was roughly 2013 when they started to appear everywhere, thereby becoming a vital part of the collective consciousness. For all their ubiquity, though, I'm a bit suspicious.

It’s an icon for the ages. There are the ones with sassy slogans or cult designs that seamlessly blend into an outfit; a fashion statement. There are also fancy ones, with slightly thicker, hardier straps, but most of the ones I own have been freebies when spending above a certain amount of money at a bookshop. Part of the appeal of the tote bag is its versatility. I’ve taken these better-quality ones to job interviews, when I want to show off a bit of my personality — or personal brand, if you will — and still be smart. I can show off how I have collected them from various cultural establishments in Quebec, Vermont, Austria, and Lithuania. I even have The New Yorker bag, despite the fact I do not own a subscription to the magazine, much less have I been to New York. That hardly matters, though; the point is, I can send out a message that I’m learned, that I’m bookish, that I’m even willing to make friends due to the fact that we both know. When I took this bag to the doctor's, she assumed I was American, not British, and I cannot help but feel that my choice of bag, which I saw her looking at, influenced this.

But then there are the bog-standard ones. Last year, I attended an educational event and among the countless freebies on offer was, of course, was a tote bag from one of the sponsors, a music production software company with its headquarters in my city. I looked inside and the label said Werbetasche (advertising bag), followed by a number you could call if you wanted to order more.
Within a mere moment, the illusion was shattered. I realised that before this moment, I'd considered the tote bag a purely benevolent item. It shouldn’t have really come as a surprise, though, seeing as these bags are literally emblazoned with names of organisations. You become a walking advert without even thinking twice about it. I’ve been known to google a name off someone’s bag that looks interesting, so it must work. But you can pledge allegiance to a brand just as easily as you can then discard it.

At a guess, I have accrued about 15 current tote bags, many of which are stuffed into — you guessed it — one giant one. With a couple of notable exceptions in my roster, I have never paid money for a tote bag. They tend to be handed out for free at educational and networking events, which, as everyone knows, are the ultimate freebie hubs. But this in itself leads me to question the path that has led to my life of totes. It’s no Oscars goodie bag, but privilege is afforded even to a complimentary item: you need to first be a student, and by extension, usually, then have access to these events. That’s not to mention the obstacles hindering certain demographic groups from getting a foot in the door in the start-up world, what with its "bro" reputation. The companies that peddle promotional tote bags are often start-ups or established companies now adopting a youth-oriented approach, recruiting youngsters for what would have been known as white-collar jobs before the tech boom.

Tote bags aren’t just ersatz handbags, of course; their additional role of carrying groceries has opened up a new dialogue about sustainability. Whenever I go back and visit the rural English town I grew up in, where you have to travel many miles before you’ll encounter an office block, I rarely see people with the "cool" type of tote bag; however, I do see them with the large, cheerfully-branded supermarket totes that you can invest in for less than £1. The flimsier ones now cost a fraction of the price, starting at 5p. When I went to England the week this was implemented, a shop assistant apologised for it before I had even had a chance to complain. Last year (when I wrote this piece) after reading headlines about cases of physical violence and verbal abuse from customers towards shop staff when a fee was placed on carrier bags in certain Australian states, I now understand why. Service jobs are never a walk in the park, but the entitlement towards this particular item — as well as the misplaced rage — only highlights its perceived expendable nature, kowtowing to capitalism. No wonder it's something we can’t live without.

But maybe in the same way we’re all being coerced into eating “clean” and encouraged to say no to straws, we convince ourselves a slightly more expensive, environmentally sustainable one is worth the investment, allowing us to feel like we are telling the world we’re not filthy ocean-polluters.

Sadly, sustainability does not mean that mass production grinds to a halt. AUK Environment Agency study found that a polypropylene plastic was about the same global warming potential as a cotton one.
Moreover, these Werbetaschen straddle the line between fashion and practicality. We use them for our own mundane, personal purposes — to carry around our things — but the ones that we reach for in various situations are controlled by something outside ourselves. We become agents of these companies — and if it’s from a charity or other non-profit organisation, people may even question our intentions, assuming our intentions are not genuine but that we are virtue-signalling; that is, casting a message to those around us that we are Good People, rather than actually doing anything to effect change.

In my small, subletted flat, I’m acutely aware of the need to cut down on things in order to conserve both physical and mental space, and to clear mental space. It is easy to turf out threadbare clothes or disappointing books. Tote bags, though? Thanks to the fallacy of usefulness, I can’t part with them. Sometimes the thought crosses my mind, but I blow it away, choosing instead to focus on more pressing tasks like cleaning the kitchen or paying that dreaded bill.

When I was younger, I would snip motifs out from T-shirts I had grown out of and stitch them onto new ones so that they could live on forever (or at least until I felt too embarrassed to wear them). Recently, I cut up a bag in a similar way. Its straps were too thin, so I could hardly use it for all the things I generally need to carry around, of which the minimum is a water bottle, a book, my purse, keys. (Most of the time I’ll bring a notebook and pen, too, because I can hardly call myself a writer without one, can I?) I stitched it onto a top whose sleeves, in turn, I had cut off in an attempt to make a trendy cold-shoulder piece. Before that, I had dyed it black with drugstore machine dye, guzzling electricity and water, because the dirty-white hue had been ruined by an inscrutable stain on the front.

I can’t let go of these bags because I can’t help but think that they are part of my life, my story. I even keep the one from the company that fired me because I developed in more than one way while I was there; besides, who would actually take the bag if they didn’t have a connection to the company? The straps of the tote bag I have spent the most money on, Stay Home Club’s “Stay Home and Watch Buffy”, finally started to disintegrate last Christmas. It is still hanging up on a hook in my hallway, still safety-pinned from the day it broke. I can’t throw it away, yet I can’t think of a way to recycle the motif, either. Perhaps a bag is for life after all, Kondo-ing be damned.

In all the conversations at the moment about plastic and sustainability, the infallibility of the tote bag is seldom if ever addressed. It is made of cotton, and even though that’s often cited as an environmentally friendly material, nobody knows how to recycle it — especially since cotton items so often form part of our own stories. In that sense, they’d have a hard time fitting into anyone else’s.