Eco-friendly bags today are social statements as powerful as they are fashion statements

He would have been surprised to hear it, but Velusamy, a mason on the outskirts of Chennai was an eco-warrior. For 45 years he never once forgot to carry a small yellow bag slung down the handlebar of his bicycle. Whatever he collected went into it — grocery, kovil prasadam, goodies for kids... He washed the bag, and when it got threadbare, quietly replaced it with another — always yellow, always no-nonsense cloth. People in his neighbourhood had these bags too, but used plastic ones when they forgot to carry it along. With Velusamy, it was a permanent accessory.

More than a convenience

Today, it would have surprised him that a convenience for him is now a hotly-pursued concept. The cloth bag, a message in itself, has been re-discovered for its capacity to make a social appeal, take a stand. And, has caught the imagination of bag-users.

Jewellery shops now routinely hand over purchases in cloth bags — some fancy, some everyday, all eco-friendly. Mlesna, a tea company, packs its gourmet tea in small drawstring bags with pretty embroidery for edging. I bought the tea for this bag! Kalki, a lifestyle store, at 134, Mission Street Puducherry uses standard gaada material for the large-sized bags that come printed with its circular logo.

The beautifully stitched, sturdy bag collectively created by Intach, Urban Design Collective, Prastara and Laxmi France is a collector’s item. Its 12x16 inches face has a neatly laid out map of Puducherry’s boulevard town. A list of heritage buildings in these French and Tamil Quarters is printed on the side. Bag in hand you can embark on a Pondy heritage walk! If you are keen to own a tote bag with a green message, Tree Foundation has one. Its ‘Let it live’ bag has a tree, birds and animals on one side and seven points on ‘Everyday ways to care for earth’ on the other. These are roomy bags for shopping and school / college use.

If you would like to promote a pet cause through bags, find an eco-bag maker online, order plain bags and get a logo / message printed. Charu Shah uses the profit she makes from selling bags to spay and neuter feral cats. “It all started when I rescued three kittens 11 years ago,” she says. Soon she was taking care of stray cats and dogs in her building, and began to look for financial support. “I select funny and catchy phrases, look up graphics on the Net, put them together to make bags. I want people to use fabric bags instead of plastic ones.” Friends who want to help animals buy, others call because they love the caption / picture on the bag, and want to gift them to friends / relatives fond of cats. “I sold a lot of bags at Mumbai’s Kalagoda Art Festival and have about 40 left.” (

Tribal touch

Rajashree Khalap who works for Satpuda Foundation, has a twist to her bag tale. Working with the Nature Conservation Society of Amravati to protect forests and wildlife of the Satpuda Tiger Landscape of central India, she helped organise sewing courses for tribals. Among the first items the Sawra Self-Help Group made were reusable shopping bags, she says. “A tag on each explains it was made by Gond tribal villagers in the Pench tiger landscape. We printed a ‘Save The Tiger’ message on the bag — an opportunity too good to miss!”

Tree Foundation is taking this idea to children in a fun way. “The Australian Consulate embraced our proposal to hold a contest for school kids to make shopping bags using recycled materials,” says Supraja Dharini, its founder. “Our first ‘Eco-bag Designer of the Year’ contest drew participants from 51 schools across the city. And we received 1,345 entries — bags made from worn-out T-shirts, skirts, denim clothes, uniforms, recycled paper, jute sacks… to name a few.”

The bags were judged in five stages, the best were selected based on the use of recycled materials, creativity of design, utility, effort, quality of work. Schools which contributed the maximum entries were recognised for their efforts, “but for us everyone was a winner”.

When I carry my shoulder-bag for shopping, stores tell me their bags are their publicity agents. Fine, I tell them, as long as they are jute or cotton!