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There aren’t too many items I use more than my backpack. I take it to my coworking space every day, use it to pack up extra clothes and toiletries if I’m taking a short weekend trip, and when I go for a day hike I throw in my huge water bottle, trail mix, bug spray, and sunscreen. Surprisingly, I’m still working with an eight-year-old grey Jansport right now. But the zipper is broken and I don’t know if it can be fixed, so might soon be in the market for a new ethical, sustainable backpack!
Here’s what to look for in a high-quality, sustainable backpack
Quality and durability: A backpack is first and foremost functional. So whether you’re taking it on a camping road trip, as your carry-on for a flight, or to work every day, there’s a good chance you’re going to be slinging it around, getting it wet, and generally subjecting it to a good amount of wear and tear. The last thing you want is to end up on a hike with a broken strap or in an airport with a bag with a busted zipper. Durability is always a must for sustainable fashion, but especially so for backpacks.
Your own specific needs: What will you actually be using your pack for? Work? Travel? Hiking? Do you need to prioritize water resistance, aesthetics, or something else? How many compartments do you need, and for what? What size will work best for you? Can you get one that can be used for more than one purpose? Will a roll-top or zipper be best? Do you need extra laptop protection, like padding or locks? Take some time to think about what you will actually be using your backpack for and how it will fit into your lifestyle so you don’t end up wasting resources on something that won’t work for you.
Sustainably-sourced, natural and/or recycled materials: Many of the backpacks below are made from recycled materials, which is awesome. Other than that, look for natural materials like cotton canvas and locally-sourced, vegetable-tanned leather, and banana fiber(!). These kinds of materials are mostly renewable, biodegradable, non-toxic, much less taxing on the planet, and more often than not, they’re higher quality and more durable, too.
Fair wages and transparency: Because, well, people should be paid fairly for the work they do, period. Look for brands that are committed to paying their artisans living wages for their work, while also providing other benefits like healthcare and education.
Timelessness: Get a backpack that you genuinely think you’ll love and use for years to come! A few of the brands below even come with lifetime warranties and repair programs.
Lastly, note that not all of these companies are doing absolutely everything 100% ethically and sustainably — but they’re honest about that and are committed to improving. If we ever find out that a brand isn’t operating responsibly or honestly, they are removed!
Here are our favorite brands for sustainable, ethically-made backpacks:
Not only are Solgaard’s packs made completely from recycled ocean plastic, but they are also super functional for travel and/or everyday use. These backpacks have some awesome features like a solar-powered charger for your phone, an anti-theft lock, secret compartments for your passport or debit cards, and a drop-proof laptop sleeve. Plus, for every item purchased, Solgaard pulls five pounds of plastic from the ocean in partnership with The Plastic Bank.
Great for travel, Paravel’s Fold-Up Backpack folds flat and zips into a barely-there pouch for space-saving storage or portability when not in use. Keep it handy in your carry-on as an extra travel bag for day trips or overflow, upgrade your workout look at the gym, or carry it with ease on your daily commute. It’s made from recycled plastic bottles. Get a full-sized or a mini!
Every brand that REI carries meets a minimum standard of ethical and sustainable operation. Although not every single item is made out of recycled and/or natural materials, they have a really wide variety of backpacks to choose from that are not only made in a conscious way, but are incredibly durable and made to last a really long time. Or, you can shop from their Used Gear section, which is perhaps the most sustainable (and affordable!) option. For more about REI’s sustainability initiatives in depth, read this.
You’re probably familiar with InCase. Not everything they make is eco-friendly, but they do have a couple of collections that use recycled and/or responsibly sourced materials. The selection of backpacks above are part of their Ecoya collection, which is made from fabric created through an eco-dyeing process that introduces coloration in the raw material stage instead of at the yarn phase (when traditional yarn dyeing occurs). This reduces CO2 emissions and uses 89% less water than conventional yarn dyeing methods while also creating a more colorfast fabric that stands up better to light, water and washing. They also have duffels and tech cases made out of eco-conscious materials.
CAUSEGEAR is a CHICAGO based L3C social enterprise established to compete on the world stage in design and quality while also serving as a vehicle for consumers to help create sustainable social reform. Every purchase supports a day of freedom from slavery and poverty through a self-sustaining job and each item is made in a factory that meets or exceeds the World Fair Trade Organizations (WFTO) standards. CAUSEGEAR backpacks are made mostly of natural canvas, with features like backpack sleeves and multiple water bottle pockets. Custom embroidery is available as well.
Parker Clay is a socially-focused lifestyle brand that handcrafts luxury leather goods in Ethiopia, where they employ over 100 artisans. As a Certified B Corporation, they are dedicated to providing dignity and empowerment for their employees, as well as producing the highest quality products for their customers. Their backpacks are made from full-grain leather that’s produced in a metal-free tanning environment that is part of the international Green Tannin Initiative (which means it’s produced using less water, energy, no chrome or metals, and no sulfide). They’re actively working towards transitioning to “fully green leathers” while continuing to source locally.
Sandqvist bags are made from 100% organic cotton sourced directly from small scale farmers at fair prices. All of the synthetic materials used in their bags are recycled from post-consumer waste. They also have repair shops at their flagship stores in Stockholm, Berlin, and London, where they will either repair a broken bag or upcycle it into something new and different. Committed to transparency throughout the entire production process, the company is also a member of the Fair Wear Foundation to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for their makers.
Fjallraven is committed to sustainability throughout the entire manufacturing process, from design to production. Using natural and recycled materials and saying no to harmful chemicals, they prioritize longevity, recyclability, function, and simplicity. Their code of conduct is based on the Fair Labor Association’s Workplace Code of Conduct and covers human rights, animal welfare, environmental protections, sustainable development and anti-corruption.
bluesign certified and a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, Pinqponq is committed to environmental and humane responsibility throughout their supply chain and manufacturing process. They work with audited factories in Vietnam with strict labor standards, use fabrics that are 100% recycled PET bottles, and keep toxic chemicals out of the supply chain.
Of course, the most sustainable option out there is to buy secondhand—and it’s also the most affordable! thredUP is the largest online secondhand shop out there, which means if you do a little digging, you will probably be able to find a backpack you love for super cheap. Sometimes you can find items with the tags still on them!
TUMI’s recycled collection is made primarily from recycled plastic bottles, but they still meet the high quality standards that TUMI is known for (meaning this pack should last you for a really long time). Plus, they design for repairability, meaning that when things do start to break down, certain parts can be repaired to extend the life of your pack. These have lots of compartments to keep you organized, and you’ll probably get a nod of appreciation from the business types if you frequently travel for work.
Made Trade curates the most exceptionally designed, ethically-sourced goods from artisans and makers around the world. They hand select only the best fair trade, sustainable, USA made, vegan and heritage products. They carry backpacks from brands like Nisolo, Svala, and Alchemy Goods.
Great for your commute or day hike, United By Blue’s backpacks are made out of sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, and vegetable tanned leather. Plus, every product purchased removes one pound of trash from our oceans and waterways.
With an emphasis on quality and durability, Timberland’s backpacks are made at least in part out of recycled materials. As a company, they have specific goals to plant trees, switch the renewable energy, reduce waste, and engage employees in community building activities, which you can track on their website. If you want to read more about Timberland’s sustainability initiatives, check out this post.
Founder Kathleen Kuo used to be a luxury leather specialist at Chanel and Dior. After witnessing and educating herself on the amount of waste created in the production of luxury goods, she felt compelled to make a difference—and Opus Mind was born. With a focus on circular design, the brand uses materials that meet sustainable, RCS-100 standards. Their upcycled leather is sourced from RecycLeather™—a green tech company that recycles natural leather fibers from used traceable leather waste. Everything is made in a family-owned factory in Florence, Italy that has been passed down 3 generations.
Not only are OGIO backpacks made from recycled and discarded materials, but they are also super durable and come with a 100% satisfaction guarantee and a lifetime warranty. Built with lots of easily accessible compartments, these backpacks are perfect for the adventurer on the go.
Cotopaxi is a certified B Corporation with a foundation that’s on a mission to alleviate global poverty. From their everyday lifestyle packs to their larger hiking backpacks, everything is made transparently in their factory in the Philippines and designed to last. Be aware that a lot of the materials used are not entirely eco-friendly, but many of their bags are made using excess, remnant materials like fabrics, zippers, buckles, and thread, to prevent waste.
Duluth Pack is the oldest canvas and leather bag and backpack making company in America. With its rich heritage, Duluth is committed to handcrafting their versatile products using quality materials, and their artisans meticulously ensure that each bag will last for generations. With a lifetime guarantee that covers craftsmanship and hardware, you’ll be certain that their bags will really pass the test of time. Plus, they’ve been vetted by BuyMeOnce, so you know they’re the highest quality brand out there.
Rewilder goes the extra mile by upcycling high-performance, impossible-to-recycle fabrics tossed by corporations in the automotive, entertainment, and beverage industries. They specialize in designs that highlight the strength and durability unique to industrial-grade fabrics, resulting in bags that are beautiful, functional, and unbelievably tough. Each bag is ethically made by hand in their Los Angeles studio. Check out these chic backpacks fashioned from salvaged mesh screens, discarded airbag fabric, and reclaimed seatbelts.
QWSTION’s beautiful, sleek packs are great for urban use, work, and travel and come in a variety of colors and sizes based on what you need. They are made using organically grown fibers like high-density cotton canvas and Bananatex (made from banana fibers), then finished with PFC-free water-repellent coatings. Check out my experience visiting QWSTION in Switzerland here.
GOT BAG created a completely waterproof backpack that’s made from 100% recycled plastic from the ocean. It can be used as an everyday pack, but I think it would be especially great for the adventurer. I’ve been in more than one situation on my adventures when I wished I had a big waterproof bag I could throw all my belongings in! Plus, not only is it 100% waterproof but it’s durable and comes with a removable laptop bag too. It’s 23 liters and can be easily expanded because of its flexible roll top.
A leader in sustainability for the past four decades, Patagonia carries a variety of backpacks from an everyday pack to technical, sport-specific packs. Much of the materials used are recycled, and as always, Patagonia is committed to ethical and transparent production so you can find out more about where your pack was made right on the product page.
Incorporating a zero waste philosophy into their entire company, grünBAG only uses durable materials that last and would otherwise go to waste (like old seatbelts, lifeboats, and advertising banners, for example). Most of their bags are made to order right at their headquarters in Switzerland. You can read my full review of a backpack I designed myself here, and you can even buy my design for yourself here!