Image credit: MZ
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If there is any sustainable fashion “investment” you should make, it would be a handbag. Sustainable purse and handbag brands often have a classic, well-crafted approach to design, meaning the bags are timeless items that you’ll keep for years, even decades, to come.
Whether you’re looking for a reliable, everyday crossbody bag, a statement clutch, or a colorful tote that can hold all your things, there’s an ethical alternative to suit every need.
What to look for in sustainable, ethical handbags:
Materials: The vegan leather industry is constantly innovating to create sustainable alternatives that replicate the texture of leather, minus the environmental impact. From Piñatex’s pineapple leather to solvent-free vegan leather—which uses 95% less water, 50% less energy, and zero chemicals—there are plenty of brands that are using eco-friendly, cruelty-free, vegan leathers.
If you do want to buy genuine leather, which does tend to last longer and be more easily repaired, look for brands that use recycled leather, vegetable-tanned leather, or deadstock/offcut leather (meaning the leather used is already in the system, preventing it from ending up in landfills). You’ll also find more brands upcycling waste textiles like old carpets, mountain climbing cords, and vintage clothing to create unique, covetable bags. And brands that use upcycled textiles usually have very small batch production, so you’re unlikely to see anyone else with your handbag!
Social Impact: There are plenty of great brands that work closely with artisan craftspeople around the world, creating handbags from locally-sourced materials such as jute, handwoven brocades, raffia, leather, and other traditional fabrics. Not only do these make for vibrant, beautiful bags that celebrate unique traditions across the world, but the brands tapping into the expertise of artisans are also supporting local economies, creating job opportunities for women, and partnering with local charities to give back to the communities they work with.
Transparency: Look for brands that prioritize paying fair wages, creating decent working conditions, and producing in a way that reduces their environmental footprint. Brands that work closely with artisan communities or local family-run manufacturers, or produce everything in-house, are ensuring that attention to detail is paramount. This means they have greater transparency of production and manufacturing, so you can also rest assured that they know every link in their supply chain.
Many of the bag brands below produce small-batch, limited runs of their handbags, ensuring there is a limited risk of overproduction and waste. If it’s actively doing all of these things, you should be able to find information about it on the brand’s website. A good indicator of a transparent business is how much information is easily accessible to customers — if it’s sharing information about the people who make the items, the factories, and materials used, you know the team has done their research and values transparency.
Timelessness: When buying an ethically made handbag, consider the life cycle of that product. Look for styles and colors that you know will be timeless, multifunctional, and fit into your wardrobe, can be repaired by the brand, or are customizable to fit your exact needs. It’s worth looking into certain fabrics to make sure they are hardwearing and built to withstand years of use and consider the end of life of a product (is it recyclable or biodegradable?).
Repair program: Buying a handbag is often an investment, so extending its usage is a must. Check out brands that offer repair programs, which will help you rock your bag for many years.
Packaging: Numerous brands offer plastic-free packaging. Double-check that they wrap your item in either reusable, 100% recyclable, or biodegradable packaging.
Here are our favorite brands for sustainable, ethically-made handbags:
Women-owned and operated MZ is a fair trade, B Corp certified brand that designs bags and accessories that perpetuate the beautiful artistry of the designers and artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico. Its products are hand-dyed and handwoven using a process used by the Zapotecs for centuries. The brand’s goal is to make weaving a more viable livelihood for the artisans and connect Zapotec textiles with socially conscious consumers around the globe.
Based in LA, Svala is a vegan brand that sources its eco-friendly materials—including Pintatex pineapple leather, cork, vegan PU leather, recycled polyester, and organic cotton—from innovative European mills. Svala’s handbag range includes crossbody bags, clutches, totes, and backpacks in a range of versatile monochrome and metallic colors. Everything is handcrafted in a downtown Los Angeles factory to ensure full transparency and fair working conditions. Not only is Svala part of a carbon offset program to reduce its carbon footprint, but it also strives to give back, donating 10% of profits to charities like WildAid, a group working to end the illegal wildlife trade.
A certified B-Corp business, Nisolo is a footwear and accessories brand that has social impact and transparency at its core. Nisolo publishes annual impact reports, sharing in-depth information about every link of its supply chain—from the living wages paid to employees in its Peruvian factories, to the codes of conduct agreed upon by its partner manufacturers. The brand also has a partnership with Ecosphere+, protecting the Amazon Basin from deforestation and offsetting its carbon emissions with every product sold.
Founded in 2008, QWSTION is a Swiss brand known for combining design and functionality with sustainability. Its bags and products are developed in Zürich, in its own prototyping workshop, which allows testing new ideas and unique constructions in a very early stage of the product development, resulting in more refined products. You can find bags made out of organically grown fibers like high-density cotton canvas and Bananatex (made from banana fibers), then finished with PFC-free water-repellent coatings. Check out Alden’s experience visiting QWSTION in Switzerland here.
Behno, which means “sisters” in Hindi, is a New York brand that values community. Behno is a social enterprise with six core founding principles that make up the Behno Standard, ensuring that the company’s artisan employees in India have access to benefits, healthcare, family planning, and education. To achieve this, the brand set up its own factory and produces handbags using leather from tanneries in Italy. Behno makes four signature styles of handbags, as well as seasonal capsule collections, with 20% of profits from these going to charities like the National Down Syndrome Society.
Founded in 2017, Ashya creates unisex, utilitarian travel accessories made for “modern-day explorers.” Everything is designed and handmade in New York, where the focus is on producing premium quality, small-batch collections. Ashya’s belt bags, passport holders, and crossbody bags are made from Italian leather and lined with organic cotton canvas, and all the hardware is custom-made by a boutique metalsmith in the garment district.
Based in Ghana, AAKS handbags are made from vibrantly colored raffia, handcrafted by artisans who spend a week making each bag. AAKS aims to keep these traditional weaving crafts alive by creating sustainable jobs, not only for the artisans but for the local family farms where the ecologically harvested raffia is sourced. A testament to the quality and uniqueness of AAKS handbags, each piece comes with a tag to prove its authenticity.
Naturae Sacra is a luxury and contemporary handbag brand. Its products are designed in Milan and handmade in Turkey, focusing on skilled craftsmanship techniques by including high-quality vegetable tanned calf leather and supporting its community through hiring locally.
Created by long-time friends Zi Xuan and Yijia Wang, advene is a new luxury accessories brand that prioritizes careful design and responsible production. The leather used is 100% traceable, sourced from food byproducts, and produced in a scope-C gold-standard tannery certified by the Leather Working Group. The Age Bag (pictured above) was engineered without the unnecessary plastic fillers in order to cut down on waste. At checkout, customers are given a discount if they opt for minimal packaging; otherwise, the packaging consists of an FSC-certified greyboard box and a dust cloth made from GOTS certified hemp.
Founded in 2015 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lidia May is a handbag brand with social impact at its core. Employing a network of women artisans, the brand works closely with the Lidia Hope Centre, a non-profit organization that supports over 400 families living in Dhaka slums, training women in embroidery and providing schooling for their children. For certain collections, 100% of the proceeds from the first 1500 bags sold go towards funding the Lidia Hope Center School.
Since 2015, New York-based brand Kintu has been collaborating with artisans around the world to produce luxury handbags with an emphasis on generational conservation of artistry and craftsmanship. Made in Italy, Kintu bags are constructed using natural vegetable-tanned leather sourced around Europe, while the hardware comes from Kenya and handwoven brocade fabrics in India, making Kintu a truly global artisanal brand. The designs are minimalist, hardwearing, and practical.
Kayu is a Californian brand that works with women cooperatives in the Philippines to produce its bags. Its handbags are woven from seagrass straw, a natural weed that is harvested and dried by hand, meaning that eventually, the bags will biodegrade. Kayu also works with immigrant women in San Francisco who hand embroider the monograms onto each Kayu bag, which provides them with practical training and a fair income. With the goal to become a zero-waste brand within the next five years, Kayu focuses on both social impact and sustainability across the design and manufacturing process.
Klès is an independent brand creating handcrafted leather bags and accessories. Its designs are minimal with a little twist and designed and crafted in England. All of its products are made using sustainable materials, including chemical-free vegetable tanned leather, and solid brass fittings.
Been London is a handbag brand dubbed by British Vogue as one of the most innovative fashion companies in the world. Using recycled leather and dead stock fabrics, Been works with one of the last bag-makers in East London to create zero-waste designs. A life cycle assessment found that Been London bags have 87% smaller carbon footprint than an equivalent bag bought on the high street. For every bag purchased, Been plants a tree with NGO Tree Nation.