Ethical Alternatives to Designer Handbags

Do you like the look of designer bags on your arm, but hate the weight of guilt associated with most luxury brands? Kate Black offers ethical alternatives to the popular “it” bags.


| April 2016


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.







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