Handbags are a stylish and useful accessory for millions of people worldwide. Having a small cache of helpful items at arm’s length often comes in handy for handbag owners (as well as the friends and loved ones around them!). However, with millions of bags sold worldwide, the environmental impacts of purses, backpacks and other bags begin to add up. Is there a need to rethink how we view this popular accessory?
This article will walk you through how conventional handbags are made, how they affect the environment, and what manufacturers and consumers can do to make these crucial accessories more sustainable.
How Conventional Handbags Affect the Environment
With global revenue in the handbag industry expected to surpass $62 billion in 2022
, it becomes apparent that the sheer number of bags that are purchased and discarded is massive. Understanding the impact of each aspect of conventional handbag production and disposal will help guide consumers down a more sustainable path.
Conventional leather production has some large environmental impacts. In fact, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index
, which measures environmental sustainability, rates leather as having a much higher impact than other materials, as it contributes to pollution and climate change.
Leather is obtained from cows or other animals that need land to be raised, thus contributing not only to loss of natural habitats but also to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Animal farming is an industry that produces large quantities of the gasses that contribute to climate change. To be exact, it is estimated that agriculture and forestry accounted for 10.5% of United States greenhouse gas emissions
in 2018. The leather must then be dehaired and treated with chemicals. The factory tanning process for leather is also quite chemical intensive, and can create toxic water pollution and impact the health of tannery workers.
After obtaining the leather, the material must be processed into a bag. Most conventional handbags are made by cutting leather into several pieces to form the sides and bottom of the bag. The leather is sewn together and other materials are used to create the handle, clasps, zippers, and decorative ornaments. Leather is used for the strap and dyes can be used to create designs or to color parts of the bag. These synthetic dyes often run off in wastewater, causing harm to wildlife that comes into contact with toxic dyes.
Finally, the disposal of handbags may seem ecological on the surface, as leather is a natural material. However, the leather itself can take up to 50 years to decompose, while plastic and metallic parts that make up the bag can remain in landfills for a lot longer.
How Other Types of Handbags Affect the Environment
Besides leather, handbags can be made from canvas and nylon. When canvas is organic, it provides a viable alternative to conventional handbag material. However, nylon, a material that many bag manufacturers turn to for their products, can prove to be very wasteful, particularly because it is a plastic-based material that depends on fossil fuels
Even when compared to other plastic-based fibers, the processing of nylon is more energy-intensive. Nylon production significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and releases nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more destructive than carbon dioxide
What Can Handbag Manufacturers and Retailers Do?
All hope is not lost - there are many sustainable bag options, including ones made from more sustainable leather. For example, cork leather
is a natural alternative to conventional leather made from trees. Some bags may even be made out of leather made from mushrooms, seaweed, or grapes.