Bags come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. For every need and outfit, there’s a fitting bag material. You got leather bags if you need something sophisticated and durable. Nylon or polyester makes up sporty bags and canvas for your casual, low-key, everyday outfits. Then, there’s straw and mesh for chic, beach, or picnic-ready bags. Of all of them, leather is the most widely used in the realm of fashion because of its durability, flexibility, and premium appearance.
There’s nothing wrong with all these materials, but if you want something unique or maybe more sustainable and eco-friendly, you have plenty of unusual options that are not yet as widely used as other bag materials:
1. Vegan leather
Let’s start with a once-alternative material that is becoming more common nowadays. Vegan leather is a cruelty-free, eco-friendly material that is sometimes referred to as “pleather” or “plastic leather.” It’s an all-encompassing term for any kind of leather that is not made of animal skin.
But usually, vegan leather refers to synthetic leather, more commonly known as polyurethane leather (PU) or polyvinyl chloride leather (PVC), made from plastic polymers. PU leather is made by coating a fabric like polyester or cotton with a soft and flexible polymer to look like leather. Meanwhile, PVC leather, also known as vinyl, is made of polyvinyl chloride with stabilizers that protect the fabric, lubricants to make it flexible, and plasticizers to soften it. This combination is applied to base materials like nylon, rayon, cotton, or polyester.
However, these kinds of vegan leather have a great environmental impact because they are not biodegradable, and the production process releases chlorine-based chemicals. Modern production processes have improved to make it less harmful and omit zero to less volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Then, some types of vegan leather are made of more natural materials, like pineapple fibers, cork, and others – some of which will be mentioned in this list.
Acrylic is a transparent plastic material that is known for its strength, stiffness, and optical clarity. Acrylic handbags are hard, structured handbags that are created and used for their aesthetic appeal. They are lightweight and are often small, making them a material commonly used only for clutch bags. Some of the most appealing include transparent acrylic clutches that give a pristine touch to any outfit.
Cork is a trusty new vegan material on the block – it’s biodegradable, recyclable, and versatile. It can be sturdy, waterproof, and made to look like leather. Cork has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as a fashion-forward material. Not only does it look like leather, but it’s also renewable and completely recyclable.
Cork is a natural fiber that comes from cork oak trees. With a lifespan of about 300 years, cork oak trees are harvested for their bark every decade, but the trees continue to grow, producing more cork.
Piñatex is a leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibers. Ananas Anam, a sustainable textile company, makes this material out of pineapple leaves from the Philippines that are otherwise thrown out while the pineapples are harvested. The fibers are then separated, turned into a non-woven mesh, and then shipped to Spain or Italy for finishing. This material is used for creating clothing and bags and is now used in more than 1,000 brands worldwide, including Hugo Boss and H&M.
Mushrooms can be used for many things, and nowadays, they are also mimicking the texture of leather made from animals. MuSkin, also known as mushroom leather, is made from mushroom caps of a fungus tanned with non-toxic ingredients. This material is softer, more breathable, and even more water-resistant than leather derived from animals, making it perfect for use in everyday times like purses, belts, and shoes.
Bolt Threads also make eco-friendly vegan leather using the underground root structure of mushrooms. Named Mylo, this sustainable material is also soft and durable.
6. Waxed cotton or canvas
Traditionally used for bags and jeans, this stylish material is growing in popularity and expanding to other clothing items. This material uses canvas or cotton but uses environmentally-friendly wax to make it pliable and water-resistant like leather. It’s also much easier to clean.
7. Mulberry tree leaves
Some companies, like Gunas, created another form of material made from the paper pulp of mulberry tree leaves to coat cotton canvas, and it is glazed with tree sap to make it water-repellant. It’s called MulbTex, and it has already been launched to make a collection of handbags. Gunas uses other eco-friendly materials like wood, rubber, cork, and recycled plastic to create beautiful, designer fashion bags.
8. Leaf leather
When we think about durable fabrics, we don’t think of tree leaves. However, leaf leather is now an option on the market as a relatively rare material. These are made by applying a polymer to preserve leaves in fiber sheets. The leaves are easily sourced, and no toxic treatments or dyes are needed to produce the bags.
An eco-design startup company named Thamon produces these bags, wallets, and other fashion accessories from real tree leaves. They even make the leaf leather material to mimic the natural grain of leaves so you can make a statement with your outfit.
Grown entirely from the waste products of the coconut industry, this alternative material is strong, durable, and leather-like. An Indian fashion brand Malai makes bags out of bacterial cellulose derived from coconut water. This water is usually discarded from factories, but the product designers thought sustainable vegan leather made from these sources should be made as the market standard. The material is made from wastewater and natural fibers, and once the bag has deteriorated, you can simply pop it in the compost bin. It doesn’t get more sustainable than that!
10. Apple peel
Even apple peels can be used to make bags. Made from discarded apple skin and cores, apple leather looks the same as leather but has a paper-like feel. The texture lends itself to adding different coatings, backings, and effects. It’s also 100% biodegradable.
Even cactus isn’t spared from producing alternative, vegan leather that brilliantly resembles leather from animal hide. Cactus leather is malleable, biodegradable, breathable, durable and resistant to abrasions and mildew. It’s also soft and luxuriously smooth.
The cactus plant naturally absorbs a high amount of carbon dioxide and helps regenerate soil in degraded areas due to its resilient nature. Making leather out of cacti starts with trimming their mature leaves without damaging the whole plant. It allows repeating harvesting from the same crops, reducing the amount of land needed and resources used in the process.
12. Grape marc
Another plant-based material that can be an option is grape. Grape leather is a unique alternative made using grape marc: the skin, stalks, and seeds of grapes that are discarded during wine production. The manufacturing process produces a high material yield with low environmental impact, low production cost, and no toxic solvent or any dangerous substances involved.
Fleather is an eco-friendly and innovative material made through flower cycling technology, which entails upcycling of waste temple flowers in India. Kanpur Flowercycling, the company that developed it, collects flower waste from Indian temples and repurposes it to leather-like material that can be used in different garments, shoes, and bags. They use the dense, fibrous material sprouting from discarded and unused flower fibers. This faux leather material has caught the attention of several high-end fashion brands, so the company has teamed up with luxury fashion brands to produce fashion lines with it. Another startup in India named Phool also creates fleather made up of waste flower materials.
14. Upcycled leather
Some eco-friendly and ethical bag makers like Hyer Goods and Able use deadstock materials and factory scraps to make leather for bags. This bag material is made from the most sustainable material out there – existing ones. This way, no more greenhouse gas emissions are needed to produce leather and other materials from scratch.
15. Recycled materials
We have probably seen some small businesses and environmentally-conscious groups making tote bags or shopping bags made from recycled materials like soda cans and plastic wrappings from chips. The problem with these bags is that while they are eco-friendly, they are noticeably made from waste materials, which you may not prefer if you want to look aesthetically pleasing and fashion-forward with your outfits.
Now, some bag manufacturers use existing materials that are otherwise discarded or fill our landfills. These companies recycle but make bags that look brand new. You will not know they are made of recycled materials unless you read the label or the manufacturer’s tag. Some bag makers use recycled nylon, polyester, and leather to make their bags.
Meanwhile, some companies make it out of unusual materials that they recycle to make bags. Some make bags out of recycled sails, plastic out of landfills, grocery bags, old truck tarps, and leftover fabrics from bag production.