Image: United By Blue
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Everyone needs a reliable, sustainable backpack for something. Before the pandemic, I used mine for things like commuting to my coworking space and taking weekend trips. Now, I use it more for hiking and bike rides. If you’ve gone back to work (or never stopped), maybe you’re still in need of a cute but durable backpack to hold all of your hand sanitizer, extra reusable masks, and other essentials on your daily commute. And of course, backpacks are still the essential back-to-school item… even if back to school means starting late or only going for half the week this year. So, here is our updated list of our favorite ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly backpacks for 2020.
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 trip 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? 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 organic cotton canvas, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Terra Thread’s fairtrade Earth Backpack is made out of heavy-duty GOTS certified organic cotton fabric. Their large backpack fits a laptop, comes in a wide variety of fun colors, and is great for everyday use, travel, or school. Their mini backpack is great for a lighter day trip, or for younger kids. Terra Thread is also a certified B Corp, and each purchase contributes 20 meals to children, families, and seniors in need in the United States through Feeding America.
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.
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.
Solo New York’s Re:cycled collection brings sustainable backpacks to the masses. The affordable bags, priced from $24.99, are made of recycled plastic bottles. The process of creating the collection uses 50% less energy, 20% less water, and 60% less air pollution than more conventional backpacks. Although most of its packaging is recycled, the brand is going even further and aims to eliminate all plastic by the end of 2020.
All of Dakine’s backpacks are made from PFC-free, bluesign approved materials, and now they have a full collection made from recycled, weather-resistant polyester as well, in collaboration with the female-founded team at RANGE. They have a huge selection of colors, sizes, and designs. Whether you’re looking for a versatile option for school, hiking, your commute, or weekend travels, Dakine has a backpack for your journey. Plus, they recently donated backpacks to classrooms across the country and give back to a number of other non-profit organizations, too!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.