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.


7 thoughts on “Is a $300 canvas tote bag a #firstworld luxury?”

  1. Excellent call, I did look at Filson tote bags and have added this iconic American outfitter to the list. I've purchased Filson small accessories in the past and have been happy with them and can only imagine their larger products are equally well-made.

    My understanding is that they make their bridle leather, wool and cotton products in their Seattle factory.

  2. I think you're over-simplifying the issue of the relationship between prices and wages.

    A few points:

    First, who is to say it is worth paying someone minimum wage in the US more than it is paying someone a wage in another country? It costs a lot less to live in Malaysia than it does here, for example. Who needs the money more: Malaysia or England?

    Second, there's a tendency to think that lower prices has an impact on jobs. That MAY be true but it misses out on the full economic picture of lower prices. If I value a tote bag at $200 and can get it for $50, that's a $150 consumer surplus. I can spend that money elsewhere–on other products that employ people to make them, or save that money. (The U.S. savings rate is far too low.) Who is to say that consumers should spend the full $200 on a bag when they can make fully rational choices in other areas?

    Third, there are a lot of vague human rights-related generalizations about sweatshops and so on. There are some real issues, but sweatshops are not slave labor. Many people leave lower-paying and more backbreaking jobs in rural parts of, say, China, to go to the cities and make more money working in a factory. Who is to say their choice is wrong?

    Fourth and finally, can a consumer really calculate how much of a product's price goes to wages rather than profits? It would take a lot of knowledge of production processes. If I pay a worker $10 to make a bag, I could charge $50 and make $40 in profit, or I could charge $500 in profit, say it is "Made in America" and whatnot, and pay the worker $25, for $475 in profit. The well-off New York City-dwelling, double-monk-wearing dude might feel better paying for the $500 Made in America bag, but really has no idea how much of that price is going to wages. Corporate spin should not suffice.

  3. Stop subverting narratives. This isn't about making a rational decision. This is about justifing a decision that makes you feel good with questionable economic methodology.

  4. I agree with Anonymous. This is a tiresome justification for buying something wastefully overpriced. You could have bought 30 homeless people lunch for the cost of your fancy grocery bag.

  5. Anonymouses (anonymice?) #1-3, thanks for visiting my blog.

    Anonymous #1: I think I do recognize the complexities of this issue. You may have skipped where I wrote "I realize there is no easy solution here". If I have time I'll respond to points 1-3 later, but, regarding point 4 in your economic analysis, I would say informed consumers certainly are aware of how labor intensive handcrafted goods are. Let's set aside the luxury brands for a moment (Hermes, Louis Vuitton and the like) who charge a marketing premium for their brand, and consider a smaller, less well-known maker of handcrafted goods. There are exceptions of course (e.g. exotic skins) but the lion's share of the production cost of such goods is indeed taken up by one component – labor. Materials comprise a small or minority share of the costs.

    Anonymous #3: A couple of points. First, feeding the homeless is a serious problem but completely irrelevant to what I'm writing about. Second, you may want to reconsider what you view as "wastefully overpriced" or indeed whether your phrase makes any sense economically. Consider England, a higher wage country than Bangladesh. If labor is used to make the same product in both countries with the same method and materials, then of course it will cost more in the former rather than the latter. Simply because England is a higher wage country certainly doesn't mean its products are "wastefully overpriced." Prices of English goods simply reflect a higher cost of labor (both in terms of direct wages as well as indirect labor costs such as regulation, health care, safety, etc).

  6. A First World luxury is to go to a thrift store and purchase what was a $100 canvas tote for a mere $5, add some reinforced stitching and a waterproof liner, some leather fiddly bits, then spend the money you've saved filling it with other thrifted items (or items that are far more deserving of First World economic angst than a canvas tote, of all things).

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