Ethical Alternatives to Designer Handbags

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“Magnifeco,” by Kate Black, is your complete head-to-toe guide to eco-fashion and non-toxic beauty.
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Don’t sacrifice your conscience for fashion when you can buy ethical designer brands.

Kate Black offers a guide to the new world of eco and ethical fashion in Magnifeco(New Society Publishers, 2015). Discover brands and designers leading the way and recommendations for products. The following excerpt shares tips for choosing ethical alternatives to luxury handbag brands.

“It could be made of leather or canvas or nylon. It could be a tiny clutch in her hand or a backpack slung over her shoulder. Never mind what’s in it. More than anything else today, the handbag tells the story of a woman: her reality, her dreams.” — Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

There are clutches, satchels, purses, backpacks and of course, the bag. Handbags are more than holders of phones and lipsticks — they are the holders of secrets and can often form part of our personal brand. The size, shape and color all say something about us. So does our choice of brand or designer. Luxury designer “It” bags can show our wealth and status or be an aspirational purchase driven by glossy magazine ads and celebrity sightings; a Chanel wardrobe might not be affordable, but the handbag may be within reach.

Similar to diamonds, the rise of the “It” bag desirability was created through marketing initiatives by luxury brands. And its success is not hard to understand: handbags come in every price point, they don’t need to be tried on and are available around the world.2 This has led to $20 billion in sales, and because the profit on handbags can be ten times the cost (or more), handbags are often the engine that funds designers and design houses.

The dark side of this obsession with status bags and logos has fuelled a subculture of imitations and knockoffs. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 500 million fake handbags, belts and wallets worth $1 billion on the street were confiscated in 2012.4 While buyers think they are getting a harmless replica, the counterfeit industry is anything but harmless and has been linked to child labor5 and terrorism. INTERPOL reports that a “wide range of groups — including Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Chechen separatists, ethnic Albanian extremists in Kosovo and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland — have been found to profit from the production or sale of counterfeit goods.”

The brighter side of this quest for status through handbags has also created a niche for social enterprises and the savvy businesses who understand that, beyond logos, the modern role of handbags is about values. Whether cruelty-free, artisan or handcrafted, for the ethical shopper, handbags provide an opportunity to display those values (at every price point). Even traditional luxury gets a makeover as the descendants of Fendi and Mulberry make handbags with a mission.

The Rise of the Social Enterprise “It” Bag

A new business model appearing at an ever-increasing rate is the social enterprise. The concept isn’t that new: social enterprises have formed the backbone of non-profits for ages. Also referred to as the “missing middle,” social enterprises sit between the work of governments and NGOs (focused mainly on social impact) and traditional businesses (focused mainly on profit). They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance social, environmental and/or human justice agendas. What makes them “new” is how brands are engaging in business activities for profit and for the common good.

These brands can be recognized as Certified B Corporations, publicly highlighting their objectives as social enterprises; or certified Fair trade, highlighting their attention to fair trade principles; or as a Social Enterprise (often abbreviated to SocEnt), which aligns brands with the growing, socially conscious movement.

You can see it in the case of Lauren Bush Lauren’s FEED Projects: creating good products that help feed the world. Every FEED item, whether it’s a purse, messenger, tote or wallet, has a number attached to it, indicating how many meals that purchase pays for. The effort to provide meals to programs around the world is built into the purchase price. And the bags are clearly identifiable with FEED branding, highlighting the wearer’s philanthropic values.

In the case of Bottletop, the fashion company and registered charity launched by Cameron Saul and his father Roger (founder of British luxury fashion brand Mulberry), each bag supports disadvantaged youth. The luxury bags are clearly identifiable by their upcycled aluminum ring pulls (the type that open a soda or beer can) crocheted together. Each handbag purchase supports the work of the foundation, annually empowering over 35,000 young people to tackle delicate teenage health issues including: the prevention of HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancy, drug abuse and gender equality.

These new ethical “It” bags have value woven into the model. The purchase of each bag serves a mission: end hunger or empower youth.

Bridging with Artisans

For Ilaria Venturini Fendi’s socially conscious luxury brand Carmina Campus, each bag is made by artisans from reused and repurposed materials, creating both a social and environmental impact. A handwritten tag provides a detailed list of the materials and where each bag was made. The brand recently collaborated with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (see below) to create a 100 percent “Made in Africa” collection designed with locally sourced materials.

A flagship program of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the UN and the WTO, the Ethical Fashion Initiative was founded by Simone Cipriani in 2009. Under its slogan, “Not Charity, Just Work,” this ITC initiative advocates a fair and responsible fashion industry and makes it possible for fashion designers (like Fendi) to embrace the skills of artisans in the developing world. Of particular focus for the Ethical Fashion Initiative is empowerment of women artisans, many of whom have worked on handbags not just for Carmina Campus but also Sass & Bide, Stella Jean, United Arrows, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and more.

Just like the old days at the beauty counter when you bought something and got a “gift with purchase,” all of these brands and their forms of social enterprise offer a gift of “social good” with purchase.


Leather is a common material for handbags, and just as in shoes, provenance is key. Purchasing from members of the Leather Working Group or from makers who know the source of their leather will help ensure you get an ethical bag and support healthy, ethical supply chains. However, leather is far from the only choice — there’s fish leather, canvas, horn, beading plus many upcycling options such as excess leather, truck tarps, seat belts, gum wrappers and aluminum cans.

Other options include faux, vegan leather and pleather, usually polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. Thanks to California’s Proposition 65, things made of PVC that might be sold there have to carry this wording “WARNING: This product may contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”8 That’s because PVC contains phthalates (see page 13). Even if you don’t see a warning, fake leather and vinyl products have been known to be high in lead. In 2009, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a watchdog out of Oakland, CA, released a study called Pretty but Poisonous: Lead in Handbags and Wallets. Like other studies cited in this book, the CEH purchased dozens of inexpensive, brightly colored, fashionable, faux-leather handbags, purses and wallets at over 20 California outlets of national chains, such as Kohl’s, Target, Macy’s, JC Penney, H&M and Wal-Mart. Most of the bags were made of PVC or vinyl but some were made from other materials such as polyurethane. Tests of the outer surfaces of the bags (the part we most often touch) found high lead levels in all but five. Lead was found in bags of every color tested, but the worst offenders were yellow or yellow-tinted bags.

The report went on to highlight that recent medical research shows lead causes a wide spectrum of health problems in adults including cancer. Low-level lead exposures are linked to a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes, increases in blood pressure problems and an increased risk of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and accelerates kidney failure in patients with chronic kidney disease. The effects of lead are worse on children, who often love to play with old purses. Not all low-cost purses are toxic, but like costume jewelry, please consider limiting direct contact with skin and keeping out of the hands of children.

Game Changers


The tagline from a 2011 W Magazine article describes it best: “With her new line of bags, fashion scion Ilaria Venturini Fendi is spinning castoff materials into chic carryalls — and changing lives in Africa in the process.”

Fendi had stepped away from her brand legacy (under the LVMH umbrella since 1999) to run an organic farm outside of Rome when a chance gift from some Cameroonian visitors — a hat she could immediately picture as a handbag — captured her imagination, and she was back in the handbag business: CARMINA CAMPUS. This time it was on her own terms: upcycling and recycling materials and teaching her skills to communities of craftspeople in Africa. A partner and supporter of the Ethical Fashion Initiative since 2009, Fendi has brought expert Italian artisans to Kenya to share knowledge, train and build the capacity of local artisans.

CARMINA CAMPUS has also delved into collaborative upcycling, working with MINI (making bags from leftover seating fabric and using car visors as makeup mirrors) and Campari (making bags from marketing billboard PVC). CARMINA CAMPUS bags plus other accessories, objects and designs exclusively made with recycled or reused materials are available at RE(f)USE, the Milan boutique and workshop also owned by Fendi.


Looptworks, an innovative brand from Portland, OR, is breaking the mold in modern manufacturing — as a company, they have vowed to never use any new materials. Every product they produce is upcycled: iPad cases made from excess belt leather, backpacks from upcycled polyester and laptop cases from excess neoprene from the wetsuit industry. In 2014, when Southwest Airlines underwent a large-scale redesign that included replacing leather seats with a more lightweight material (lighter planes mean less fuel and less pollution), they found themselves with discarded leather from 80,000 airline seats. Looptworks has taken the 40 acres of leather and, “repurposing with a purpose,” is creating a line of fashionable and functional bags.

Shopping Guide

Bottletop, founded in 2002 by Cameron Saul and his father Roger (founder of British luxury fashion brand Mulberry), creates luxury purses, clutches, shoulder bags, cross-body bags, totes and belts from recycled bottle tops. V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Production supports artisans and their families in Brazil. (U) The products have a distinctive aspect: the upcycled aluminum ring pulls crocheted together. (E) Sales fund the operation of the Bottletop Foundation, which uses contemporary art and music to raise money and awareness for education projects that tackle delicate teenage health issues such as HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. The Bottletop Foundation supports young people in Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Brazil and the UK. Available at select boutiques and online.

CARMINA CAMPUS, the luxury bag concept of Ilaria Venturini Fendi, uses sustainable creativity to cope with the present social and environmental crises, making clutches, purses and shoulder bags. V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Supports and includes the work of artisans. (U) Works only with existing materials such as reclaimed wood, soda cans, PVC, fabric and leather remnants. Available at select boutiques, online retailers and at the RE(f)USE showroom in Milan.

Dutzi Design. Ariane Dutzi started the Dutzi workshop in Valladolid, Yucatan, in 2009 to make one-of-a-kind bags and accessories with indigenous Mayan artisans. V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Works with artisans, most of them women. (L) Artisans and workers are from Valladolid and the surrounding communities and are free to work from home or in the workshop. (U) Many of the bags are made from recycled burlap. (E) Also uses local and natural materials. There is no mass production. Available at select boutiques, from her showroom in Valladoid and online.

Erin Templeton. A vintage buyer by trade, Erin Templeton always found masses of unloved leather inspiring. After studying shoemaking, she came back to leather and the myriad opportunities for bags and accessories she could make from excess, vintage and unused leather. V.A.L.U.E. — (L) All productions done in her Vancouver, BC, studio. (U) Most pieces made from recycled leather.  (E) As demand grew, Templeton also started sourcing exclusive and locally tanned elk and bison hide. Available at boutiques in Canada, US and Australia, plus online.

Far & Wide Collective. The goal of this collective is to empower artisans from emerging economies. The Canadian-based e-commerce site is filled with an edited selection of handmade products such as bags and wallets (in addition to jewelry, home goods and other artisan wares). V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Each item is artisan handmade from emerging economies. (E) Works on fair trade principles. Profits are reinvested threefold: to help artisan partners grow their businesses, to help sourcing new products and to develop new artisan networks and channels.

FEED Projects. Lauren Bush Lauren created the first FEED Bag, a reversible burlap and organic cotton bag reminiscent of the bags of food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP), to help raise funds and awareness for WFP school feeding programs. Every FEED bag, wallet, backpack and tote (and new artisanal leather) bag has a measurable donation attached to it. V.A.L.U.E. — (E) Through the non-profit FEED Foundation, the social business has been able to provide over 87 million meals globally through the WFP and Feeding America. FEED has also supported nutrition programs around the world, providing over 3.6 million children with vitamin A supplements through the WFP and the US Fund for UNICEF.

From the Road. Founder and designer, Susan Easton travels the globe collaborating with master artisans on one-of-a-kind creations using heritage techniques that are nearing extinction. Fish leather clutches and Turkana hand-beaded bags from Kenya join jewelry and home decor offerings from far-flung places such as Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Ecuador. V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Each product is artisan made. (E) Ethical production, seeks natural dyes and use of traditional, local materials. Follows fair trade principles. Available at select boutiques and online.

Global Goods Partners, a fair trade nonprofit organization founded in 2005, provides support and market access to women-led cooperatives in the developing world. This US e-commerce site is filled with an edited selection of artisan and handcrafted handbags, purses, wallets (in addition to jewelry, home goods and other artisan wares). V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Works with artisan groups and producer partners in the Global South. (E) Vets each organization to ensure that artisans receive a fair living wage and work in safe conditions. Available online.

Kempton & Co. British-raised, Brooklyn-based designer Fiona Kempton creates heritage-inspired, technology-friendly handbags made in washed leathers, waxed canvas or vintage textiles. V.A.L.U.E. — (L) Bags are made in the studio connected to the Red Hook shop. (U) Bags are made from upcycled, vintage materials. Available at select boutiques in Italy, Japan and the US, its Brooklyn boutique and online.

FREITAG, was founded by Swiss brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag who wanted to give used materials a new life. They devised a way to transform used truck tarps into over 40 highly functional, unique bags and accessories for men and women. V.A.L.U.E. — (L) Made in their own factory in Zürich. (U) All products made of upcycled truck tarps, inner tubes and seat belts. Available at boutiques in Asia, Europe and North America plus online.

Looptworks, a Portland, OR, brand, creates premium upcycled laptop, tablet and smartphone cases from rescued excess. V.A.L.U.E. — (L) Everything is made in the US. (U) The brand identifies and rescues high-quality materials that are left over from premium good manufacturers. (E) 100 percent of Looptworks’ products are crafted in factories that employ fair labor practices. Certified B Corporation. Available online.

MATT & NAT, short for MAT(T)ERIAL + NATURE, this familiar Canadian brand has been offering vegan choices since 1995. Creates a full line of men’s and women’s bags and wallets. V.A.L.U.E. — (E) In addition to being vegan, uses sustainable materials such as cork and rubber, plus linings are always made out of 100% recycled plastic bottles. Available at select boutiques and online.

Mercado Global, empowers indigenous women to overcome poverty and become agents of change in their communities and offers handmade weekenders, totes and clutches in distinctive patterns. V.A.L.U.E. — (A) Works with over 300 artisans in more than 30 cooperatives across Guatemala. (E) Fair trade initiatives include providing education, tools and access to international markets so that women can build their own businesses and invest in their own communities. Available in retail stores throughout North America and online.

Shannon South. Shannon South designs and produces her eponymous line of handbags in her Brooklyn studio using luxury remnant nubuck leather from the furniture industry. V.A.L.U.E. — (L) Made in NYC. (U) Uses excess leather. (E) An additional line, Remade USA, offers custom handbags created from clients’ old leather coats and jackets.

Shopping for V.A.L.U.E.

Well-made (and luxury) handbags retain their value and can be bought vintage and second-hand through consignment and vintage shops as well as eBay.

You can also rent luxury “It” bags, on one-month leases, from Bag Borrow or Steal, an online boutique for women and men to borrow, collect and share luxury accessories.

Final Notes

The Wall Street Journal wrote that Carmina Campus bags “are gaining traction with luxury customers who see themselves as socially conscious — and already have the requisite stock of Céline and Bottega Veneta bags in their closets,” showing one perception that ethical handbags are the “in addition to” purchase.

I don’t agree; I think they are the “instead of” and carry the same craftsmanship and cache as heritage “It” bags but with added value.

Reprinted with permission from Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-Toxic Beauty by Kate Black and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.