I love handbags. In fact, I love them so much that I only have five in my sustainable bags collection – this crossbody bag, a slim evening bag, a summery rope bag, a larger tote, and a purse card holder that fits snugly in all of them. I’m so particular about the ethics and aesthetics of each that I’d rather only have a few that go with my wardrobe than loads that don’t!
That said, you may be wondering where to find sustainable bags in the UK, so I’m here to help! This guide will take you through the credentials, materials, and brands to look for…
What Makes A Handbag Sustainable?
Bags, purses, and leather goods tend to be more sustainable when they are:
- Created using fair labour
- Designed to last for years to come
- Made from recycled, upcycled, or waste materials
- Produced with artisanal techniques
- Purchased second-hand, swapped, or rented
However, what I should really be asking is, what makes a handbag more sustainable than usual? Just like shoes, bags are quite complex to create. Whereas a t-shirt has as little as four pieces, a bag has the lining, the outer, fastenings, pockets, and much more to consider. For that reason, sustainable bags are few and far between, and come with lots of different ethical conundrums.
On top of that, there’s been a lot of greenwash in the sustainable bag industry. Late last year I reviewed Matt & Nat, a vegan leather bag company I had loved and repeatedly shopped with up to that point. Unfortunately, when I took a closer look, the brand fell short of what I consider sustainable production: manufacturing in China with no real transparency, no care for workers, vast expansion, and no circularity.
So, here’s a guide to hopefully help you on your search for a more sustainable bag collection, as well as a few great brands whose ethics and aesthetics go hand-in-hand!
Which Bag Materials Are Sustainable?
Bags are often made of a combination of fabrics – an outer, an inner, hardware, and more. In my guide to sustainable fabrics, I touch on a few fabrics that are commonly used in bag linings, such as cotton, linen, and recycled nylon, but what about the principal material?
This usually boils down to leather vs. vegan leather… In my guide to vegan fashion, I discuss the conundrum of vegan leather at length. Most vegan leathers are one of the following materials:
- PVC – polyvinyl chloride – a plastic polymer that requires toxic chemicals to produce and cannot be recycled
- PU – polyurethane – a plastic material that is less harmful than PVC, and can be recycled
- TPR – thermoplastic rubber – a blend of plastic and rubber that can be recycled
- Recycled nylon – also known as ECONYL – a recycled plastic that can be re-recycled (I covered this material in more detail in my guide to eco swimwear)
- Cork – a natural material obtained from cork oak trees
Of these five materials, I only consider recycled nylon and cork as truly sustainable. That’s because these are the only materials on the list that don’t involve petroleum, which we all know is harmful from production through to breakdown.
On the other hand, producing animal leather is a carbon-intensive process that involves animal slaughter. And while leather tends to be a by-product of the meat industry – meaning animals aren’t killed solely for leather – I still feel uncomfortable purchasing leather first-hand while I won’t eat meat.
Finally, we have to consider innovative in-between materials, such as piñatex, mylo, and other vegan leathers principally made from plant-based materials. Take mylo for example – this uses mycellium, a cousin of the humble mushroom, and a petroleum base to create a soft, supple, leather-like fabric. I’m still in awe of innovations of these, and think they’re far better than basic PU, but would love to see materials that are wholly petroleum-free in future.
The best recommendation I can make is to decide for yourself what you consider sustainable. Personally, I try to shop for second-hand leather, or first-hand bags made from recycled, upcycled, or waste materials.
A Note On Luxury Sustainable Bags
Finally, before we dive into the brands making more sustainable bags than ever before, I wanted to touch on bags as investment pieces. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen my A.P.C. demi-lune bag a million times by now, and that’s testament to its versatile design, high quality, and also my love to rewearing the same pieces in my wardrobe over and over.
I had my eye on this bag for a few years before purchasing it second-hand on eBay. It still set me back a square £200, but for the amount of times I’ve worn it, it was worth it. It’s worth remembering that cultivating your sense of style, and rewearing your clothes also score highly on the list of ways to make fashion more sustainable.
In line with this is investing in designer bags. I have one other in my collection: a vintage Louis Vuitton pochette bag, gifted by Open For Vintage*, a leading online vintage boutique. In my guide to vintage shopping, I note that vintage bags are also seen as a monetary investment, so it’s important to know they’re the real deal. You can do this by:
- Visiting official vintage marketplaces
- Looking for third-party authentication
A-Z Of The Best Sustainable Bags & Purse Brands in UK
If you’re searching for a new bag, purse, or wallet, take a look at these sustainable brands and pre-loved sites. (This list has been freshly updated for 2023!)
AAKS: Bold hand-woven bags made in Ghana, supporting sustainable jobs within Africa.
Baggu: Brightly patterned shopping totes, fanny packs, and pouches made from recycled materials.
BEEN London: Handbags and smaller pieces made using waste materials in the UK.
Both Barrels*: Holdalls and backpacks handmade in the UK using low-impact methods.
Bottletop: Luxury handbags, clutches, and accessories handmade in Brazil using upcycled ringpulls.
Charlie Feist: London-based brand working to turn recycled plastic bottles into backpacks, crossbody bags, duffel bags, wallets.
Cocoon*: Subscription bag rental site, so you can have the latest it-bag on your arm at all times!
Danielle Foster: Luxury bags with clean lines and a dreamy colour palette, all made in London.
Reliked*: Pre-loved handbags fresh from influencers’ wardrobes. Get 20% off with code: CURIOUSLY
Ecoalf: Practical yet stylish handbags made from recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets.
Elvis & Kresse*: Reclaimed firehose made into bags, wallets, and accessories.
Fjallraven: Cult backpacks hailing from Finland, with free repairs. Go for their Rekanken range for recycled materials.
From Belo*: Range of bags made by skilled artisans using reclaimed and sustainably-sourced materials.
Jansport*: Not-so-great bags manufacturer, but they do provide a lifetime warranty across their range.
Le Jaana: Colourful woven pouches made by artisans in Udaipur, India.
Mashu*: Design-led handbags made from recycled and natural fibres, and reclaimed wood handles.
Mmaa*: Ghanian social enterprise producing woven baskets and bags from elephant grass.
Oliver Co.*: Minimal vegan leather wallets, card holders, and small accessories.
Oxfam*: Second-hand bags with 100% of proceeds supporting charity.
Pas-Man*: Dutch-style rucksacks, purses, and utility pouches, handmade in the UK.
Piper & Skye: Luxury hand bags, cross body bags, and more, certified by Positive Luxury.
Portamus*: American-style rucksacks and accessories handmade in workshops in Frome and Nailsworth.
Raeburn: Utilitarian style bags made in London from decommissioned military stock and surplus fabrics.
Remie Studio: One-off vintage-style bags constructed from salvaged fabrics.
Roop: Fabric bags in a signature furoshiki style, handmade in Manchester.
Sails & Canvas*: Tote bags and laundry bags made from upcycled boat sails and canvas in the UK.
Sandqvist*: Minimalist high-end backpacks hailing from Sweden that use canvas, leather, and recycled polyester.
Smythson: Luxury luggage, bags, and stationery, Butterfly Mark certified by Positive Luxury.
Stella McCartney*: Luxury vegetarian brand making innovative faux-fur and vegan leather styles.
Taylor Yates*: Super soft leather bags made in England. Get 10% off with code: YBD10
Thamon: Handbags and similar accessories made using real leaves and cork leather.
Turtle Bags*: Colourful net shopping totes and produce pouches.
Under Her Eyes: Luxury vegan leather handbags handmade in the UK in beautiful colours and materials.
Vestiaire Collective*: One of the best apps for vintage and second-hand.
Yosuzi: Chic summery straw bags and hats made using artisanal techniques from South America.
Zephyr*: Slouchy bags made from organic plant-based materials supporting unemployed women in London. Get 10% off with the code: YBD10
Not Ready To Invest? Try Renting
Having explored fashion rental brands earlier this year, I can also attest to the excitement of renting bags that would usually be way out of my price range! A few great UK rental companies offering bags for hire are Byrotation, Cocoon*, Hurr Collective, and Rotaro.
Finally: How To Care For Your Bag Collection
As an addendum to my guide to caring for clothes, I also wanted to quickly touch on caring for bags. I like to take good care of my bags by storing them in dust bags, regularly giving them a wipe-down, and being careful when I wear them. With my A.P.C. bag, I may also check it in with a bag repair company like The Handbag Clinic one day.
By caring for your bags, you can extend their lifespan, and potentially also preserve some of their value if you ever consider reselling or donating to charity!