Evil, Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag

This week, I’ve been looking for a new laptop bag. I do have two older laptop bags but one’s too small for the new laptop. The other one is a messenger bag with fabric so heavy-duty, it rubs the bejeezuz out of my corduroy jacket when I’m carrying it over-the-shoulder. To avoid my jacket sharing the same fate as a summer shirt that died at the hands of that bag, I though it was time to buy something new.

Being an environmentally minded bloke, as well as an advocate of workers’ rights, I wanted to try and buy something that might tick at least one of those boxes. After browsing the web, I found a bag made from 100% recycled PET plastic from bottles. ‘Hooray!’ I thought, ‘this looks good and is environmentally responsible. I can buy with a sound conscience!’

But after another minute’s thought, I changed my mind. I realised that, for me in England, a recycled-plastic laptop bag made in China is about as environmentally responsible as a solar panel on an oil rig. Not only is it being made half way around the world, and will travel further in its life than my granny ever did, but even the pre-used water bottles it is fashioned from have to be sorted, shipped in, melted down, spun, weaved, cut and stitched by workers operating energy guzzling machines before it can even become a bag.

With this mind, I went looking for an alternative. I cycled over to Teddington and visited its charity shops. By a stroke of luck, I found a laptop bag that was the right size for my laptop and in excellent nick. Result! The bag concerned had ‘Macworld 2013 Awards’ stamped on it and so was probably an industry freebie. Admittedly, it didn’t come with the same after-sales support promised by the Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag I’d been looking at on the web. There were no sales advice nor maintenance tips for that bag and the warranty wasn’t so much three years as three minutes, or possibly longer if I’d dawdled in the DVD section before leaving the shop, but I was still chuffed to buy it.

It’s odd; why isn’t buying something from a charity shop trumpeted in the media as a shining light of modern ethical living? Buying items this way has ‘Earth goodness’ written all over it, and that’s not even taking into account the charity that the shop is supporting!

To help rectify this, I’ve put together this report:

Point-by-point Analysis of
Environmental and Humanitarian costs of
Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag vs Charity Bag

This assessment outlines the impact on workers and the environment of Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag vs Charity Bag, including both the effects of both items on the workers involved in their sale, as well as the effect on the larger environment during their manufacture. Whenever possible, workers involved in have been interviewed and their statements recorded.

Origin of items

Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: Factory X in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh.

Charity Bag: Teddington charity shop.

Shipping distance

Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: 7,000 kms.

Charity Bag: 1km (possibly more if the park is closed).

Manufacturing process

Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: Used PET bottles are shipped in, then sorted, melted to a high temperature and spun into a fabric. Fabric is then cut and shaped. Handles are cast from furnace-heated aluminium at remote factory, cleaned, trimmed and brushed, then shipped in. Bag is then stitched together by workers operating electric sewing machines. Completed bag is cleaned, quality checked then packed reading for shipping across the globe to Europe. Total energy cost: 120 KWh per bag (estimate).

Charity Bag: Brenda reported that she took the bag from the donations pile, guessed a price for it, wrote the price on a small label, stuck it on the bag and popped the bag on the shelf by the window.
Total energy cost: 0.013 KWh (Lower than last year. Brenda’s been doing Nordic Walking).

Working conditions

Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: 14-hour days reported by some activist commentators. Large, impersonal factories, relentless schedule, few breaks, endemic physical problems for workers, safety issues, few emergency exits, no injury compensation. No workers were available for comment.

Charity Bag: Brenda likes volunteering in the shop - the tea’s nice and the tea-bags are free - although she’d prefer it if her colleague Derek put on Chirpy FM rather than Muso FM.

Workers’ rights

Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: Low to non-existent. Unions banned, no minimum wage, no redundancy money, no holidays. No workers were available for comment.

Charity Bag: Brenda thinks she should be allowed to listen to Chirpy FM at least half the time but Derek says the customers prefer Muso FM. Brenda points out that her friend Delia likes Chirpy FM and she’s in every other day. Derek replies that Delia likes garden gnomes.

Management relations

Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag: Poor. Master-Slave mentality reported in many factories. Constant intimidation to work harder, ongoing threats of sacking for minor infractions. Sexual harassment endemic. Sexual assaults reported anonymously. No workers were available for comment.

Charity Bag: Gus, the area manager, likes to pop in once a week but wishes he didn’t have to keep mediating over the whole Muso FM - Chirpy FM thing. Otherwise, he brings biscuits and the three of them have nice chats over tea.


Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag: £120 - 0.3% of proceeds go to workers, rest goes to shareholders.

Charity Bag: £12 - 0.3% of proceeds go to workers (for the tea-bags), rest goes to charitable cause.

Report Summary

While the
Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag is mostly made from recycled PET plastic, this positive environmental feature is outweighed by the fossil fuel cost of the reprocessing of the materials, the transport of the materials to the factory, the assembling of the item and its subsequent delivery to customers half-way around the planet. In addition, the bag’s manufacture in countries with flexible labour laws and on behalf of a company that makes no known effort to improve working conditions for those people also count against any attempt to portray the bag as an ethical purchase. Conclusion: The Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag is therefore formally categorized as an Evil, Shiny, Trendy New Eco-Bag.

Charity Bag is also not an ethically ideal purchase, as it is not made from hemp, jute, bamboo, dried, stringy apricots, seasonal woven dreadlocks or any other sustainable natural fibre. This though is a minor issue in light of the overall positive environmental impact of it being a charity-shop purchase. As the bag concerned was given to a charity shop and was subsequently purchase by a man on a bike, this second purchase will not add significantly to any carbon-footprint, nor reward the original manufacturers of the item. In light of this, this NGO categorizes this bag as a Saintly* Charity Bag.

* Addendum: The possible negative effect of Muso FM on working conditions is currently being researched and may affect this result.