How Your New Favorite Bag Brands Define Sustainability
Ten under-the-radar labels to know.
One common piece of sustainable style advice is simply to wear the items you love over and over. Handbags lend themselves to this kind of use quite naturally. It’s a wardrobe element that can be repeated for days, weeks, or months consecutively, becoming an extension of your arm and the reliable place to store all you need to navigate the day. The best handbags are practical, versatile, and showcase beautiful design — a combination that ensures you’ll be able to wear them not just with multiple outfits, but through multiple decades of trends. And better yet, these sustainable bag brands set an example for responsibility and consciousness that extends well beyond just being a frequently utilized accessory.
But, lest you think that you have to invest in a high-end luxury bag to ensure longevity, know that there are plenty of smaller brands that are invested in creating pieces you’ll want to keep forever. The following 10 bag labels include new names in fashion, as well as emerging ones that may not yet be on your radar. Their designs alone — featuring unique yet functional silhouettes and eye-catching fabrics — are enough to grab anyone’s attention, but what’s happening behind the production is just as innovative. These carryalls are comprised of repurposed and ethically sourced fabrics, and many are made in small batches ensuring your purchase feels special while avoiding overproduction and waste. For a more specific sense of where each brands’ priorities lie, ahead they’re sharing how they define sustainability on their terms. Read on before investing in your next favorite bag.
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Advene cofounders, Zi Xuan and Yijia Wang, have placed sustainability at the center of their brand. “We spent two years optimizing a process to offer conscientiously produced, thoughtfully constructed, premium products at a fair price, and we’re still learning and growing,” says Wang of the label that launched in 2020. “We evaluate our sustainability efforts holistically, looking at the full life cycle of materials (including sourcing, manufacturing, assembly, and packaging), instead of falling for trendy so-called ‘green’ solutions.”
For Advene, this means bypassing vegan leather alternatives, some of which can be high in polyurethane. “We chose to make all our leather products with 100% traceable cow leathers sourced from food byproducts and produced in a scope-C gold-standard tannery certified by the Leather Working Group, of which there are only 13 worldwide,” says Wang. “This certification guarantees that from rawhide to finished leather, every step is held to the highest standard of environmental impact and production.”
Other Advene measures include eliminating the use of plastic fillers and offering 100% carbon-neutral delivery. Additionally, Xuan adds that the brand’s designs themselves are thoughtfully considered, too. “By releasing designs one at a time instead of taking the standard seasonal approach, we are making space for ourselves and our collaborators to get inspired by the world around them without the creativity-crushing pressure of a relentless production timeline,” Xuan says.
Natasha “Roop” Fernandes Anjo’s Manchester-based brand might have landed on your radar for its signature Japanese furoshiki-inspired designs, but that’s just one of the styles Roop creates exclusively using deadstock fabrics. “I thought this was going to be an issue in the beginning: trying to source enough fabric for my business as it grew,” says Anjo. “However, there is an insane amount of unwanted fabric out there I can never get my head around why we are producing and wasting so much.”
Anjo’s current collection is made-to-order and she focuses on using the offcuts from the past 18 months of designs to create her other playful styles, including crossbody and scrunchie-strap shoulder bags. “My biggest influences are the stories that my accessories will be a part of once they reach their new homes,” she says. “I love to imagine all the songs my bags will dance to, meals they will get to attend, how my scrunchies help keep hair out of faces as someone works from home, it brings me so much joy to imagine everything I make becoming part of somebody's life.”
The name Merlette is not new to the landscape of sustainable fashion, but founder Marina Cortbawi expanded the brand’s offerings to include handbags as of this year. “We started by using existing materials from our collections — which cuts down significantly on waste — for our all-fabric bags,” says Cortbawi, adding that the line uses OEKO-TEX®-certified fabrics (which are free of over 100 harmful chemicals) and honors traditional craftsmanship. “We work with our team of talented female artisans in India to create the bags by hand (some of the styles take up to 100 hours to hand embroider!), not only ensuring them a fair wage but a safe environment to carry out their traditional crafts.”
Merlette’s bags, which will debut new styles and colorways seasonally, make for excellent everyday carryalls. They include mini totes in a beautiful woven pattern and a style inspired by Spanish basket bags featuring Kantha embroidery, Cortbawi shares. “I wanted the bags to be wearable day to night, weekday to weekends — that's what I see women wearing around me on the streets of NYC and how I live my life as a business owner and new mom.”
For Los Angeles-based Hozen, being sustainable comes by way of utilizing vegan alternatives for its range of handbags that have a buttery appearance, without causing environmental harm. Founder Rae Nicoletti shares that materials include “upcycled, recycled, and biodegradable options that are manufactured mindfully, fairly, and in a low-impact manner.” Hozen also uses Desserto cactus “leather,” too, in its small-batch runs of hobo, tote, and crossbody styles that come in neutrals, as well as bright shade.
“Seasonless wearability is non-negotiable,” says Nicoletti of her designs. She shares that what makes Hozen unique isn’t just the bags themselves but all steps in its process. This includes using reusable shipping boxes by Boox and offering a repair/recycle program to ensure consumers get the most out of the life of their purchase.
Santos by Mónica
Following years of working at large, corporate brands, Mónica Santos Gil launched her label, Santos by Mónica, with the aim of slowing down the fashion process with small-batch and made-to-order designs. “As a small company, focusing on this type of production is our way to take more direct control of our inventory and reduce overproduction,” says Gil of her sleek, artful designs that are inspired by post-modern architecture and interiors. “The simplicity in the forms helps create a visual fluidity that is essentially what I seek to project with Santos: simple forms and finding ways in which those shapes can inform the entire design of a specific product I'm working on.”
Furthermore, Santos by Mónica utilizes made-in-Mexico cactus leather. “[It’s] long-lasting, ensuring that you will enjoy your bags for years to come,” shares Gil of the materials. “Our cactus leather is partially biodegradable and the remaining components are highly recyclable. There is also much less impact when recycling it, as it uses non-toxic elements.”
Wilglory Tanjong launched Anima Iris in 2020, a brand that honors her Cameroonian roots and works to redefine luxury as it’s known. For Tanjong, this work includes partnering with Dakar-based craftspeople and sourcing her materials from local Senegalese vendors. The resulting Anima Iris designs include elegant top-handle designs in a range of rich and joyful textures, colors, and patterns.
The brand uses high-quality leather in its range of striking handbags and its dedication to sustainability runs throughout its production, ensuring products are never made at the expense of the earth and those who inhabit it. “In keeping with our promise to sustainability, throughout the manufacturing process we utilize a zero-waste model,” states the Anima Iris site. “This ensures that no two creations are the same and no material is wasted.”
Launched in 2020 by Loddie Allison, Porto operates on the idea that less is more, starting with the collection’s one singular bag style (at least at the moment): a drawstring pouch available in two sizes. The design is simplistic and chic, incorporating elements of traditional Japanese aesthetics. “We are inspired by wabi-sabi, a philosophy I learned from my great-grandmother,” shares Allison. “Porto honors her and the way she looked at the world.”
As for the materials, Porto works with family-run mills and tanneries for its use of Nappa leather and organic cotton. “The collection is made by hand in Tuscany, and by focusing on slow, small batch production, we're able to support artisans while minimizing our environmental impact,” Allison adds.
Designer Tessa Vermeulen admits that “sustainability” has become quite a marketing buzzword but her London-based brand Hai, makers of timeless and luxe silk handbags, is living up to the label with a careful eye on production practices and emphasis on avoiding overproduction. “At Hai, we try to make items that you can wear and treasure for a very long time,” says Vermeulen, “both because of classic designs and the silk fabric that we use for all pieces. Personally, I think it’s important to only look for pieces you’ll have for a really long time.”
Vermeulen, who grew up between the Netherlands and China, sources her silk in Suzhou and produces in “very small quantities,” she says, letting “demand decide further production.” At the moment, Hai — the Mandarin word for sea— styles include geometric shoulder bags, top-handle frames with bamboo detailing, smocked drawstring pouches, as well as other footwear and clothing offerings.
It’s 2021 and you likely already have a collection of reusable totes in rotation for trips to the grocery, library, or farmer’s market, but Junes is a new lightweight bag brand worth making space for. “My objective is to build a recognizable brand that is synonymous with ‘reusable bag,’ says founder Janean Mann, who positions Junes as “a compassionate brand aiming to help the women of Mexico,” as its production employs an all-female sewing co-op in Juárez.
However, in addition to supporting this community, Junes makes an impact for its proprietary Bio-Knit fabric that comes in a range of earthy yet vibrant colors. “We’re creating a fully biodegradable bag, which won’t last forever in a landfill or ocean,” says Mann. “With this new fabric, we’re able to fully close the loop and effectively delete plastic from the earth.” As she explains the unique process, Junes bags begin with fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles infused with CiCLO. “This ingredient allows naturally occurring microbes in landfills and seawater to consume the fibers within 60 days, so bags can be returned to the earth by fully decomposing. The result is a fabric that leaves the earth when its usefulness is done, taking plastic that would otherwise last virtually forever along with it.”
An Asata Maisé handbag may be one of the trickiest styles to get your hands on in this list, but it’s absolutely worth trying. Designed by Delaware-based designer Asata Maisé Beeks, the namesake line’s signature aesthetic comes from its use of repurposed materials, quilted together in special, one-of-a-kind patterns. “I challenged myself with repurposing the remnant fabrics rather than discarding them after completing other projects,” Beeks shares of her of soft-bodied creations, an intentional choice the designer confirms. “Practicality is one of my greatest inspirations in design.”
Beek runs a small operation at the moment and drops her collections periodically. “I'm also an advocate for slow and handmade fashion,” the emerging designer says. “All items, including handbags, become available for purchase after a lengthy creative process.” If you’re interested in procuring your own Asata Maisé bag, Beeks recommends adding yourself to her mailing list, especially since the next batch is set to arrive early this coming fall.