The more you learn about the ethics of manufacturing and production, the more you'll be forced to acknowledge that "ethical fashion" is less of an in-or-out category than it is a spectrum. One brand may be sourcing eco-friendly fabrics while another prioritizes workers' rights; still another may work only in LEED-certified factories and office spaces. And no matter what they're doing well, the most honest brands will almost always be able to point out a few things they could be doing better.
But that's not to say real standards don't exist or that it's hopeless to try and shop more ethically. Statistics about fashion's environmental impact and history of human rights violations make it clear that moving toward a better industry is the only good option.
That's why we get so stoked about brands that are striving to do things the right way, right from the beginning. To wit, we gathered up a few our favorite soon-to-blow-up leather goods brands that are starting out on the right foot in their approach to manufacturing and production. None of the brands listed below are "perfectly ethical," but the things they have in common — close connections and regular visits to their manufacturers, a willingness to talk openly about their processes and design so beautiful we'd love them based on visuals alone — are enough to get us excited. Read on to learn about the under-the-radar conscious bag brands we can't get enough of right now.
We can think of few designs that embody the phrase "wearable art object" better than Khaore's bags. That's not to say they're impractical for daily use — many of the bags are able to carry a whole lot more than just a wallet and phone. Still, the sculptural shapes that the direct-to-consumer label favors are so unique and design-centric that Khaore's pieces would look as at home in an art gallery as they would in a street style gallery.
Launched in late 2017, Khaore uses a blend of chrome- and vegetable-tanned leathers in addition to the rapidly renewable natural material jute, and is working with a biochemical engineer and a florist on a future biodegradable collection. But the real strengths of its ethics come from its relationship with manufacturing facilities. All the brand's jute bags are produced in a New York studio that co-founders Raiheth Rawla and Wei Hung Chen visit weekly. And all the leather bags are produced in a Kolkata factory owned by a family friend of Rawla, who grew up in India.
"With our overseas production, we visit the factory every six to eight weeks for a period of two to three weeks [at a time]," explains Rawla. "Spending time developing our products with the artisans gives us insight [into] their work environment."
Meb Rure was an industrial designer lauded for her innovative furniture designs before she decided to move into fashion with the launch of Mlouye in 2015, and the unique design sensibility that marked her award-winning chairs and ottomans is just as present in her handbags. From lantern-shaped mini bags to laptop-size totes, Rure infuses the same playful colors and sleek lines throughout her collection, which is stocked at Need Supply and Lyst.
All of Mlouye's bags are manufactured at a family-owned factory in Istanbul, the city Rure grew up in, where everything from leather-cutting to stitching to edge-painting is done by hand. Though Mlouye's leather is chromium- rather than vegetable-tanned, the brand works with a Turkish tannery that minimizes the chemicals involved as much as possible and invests in water- and energy-saving technology.
"Most of the tanneries never do that," Rure claims via email. "Less chemicals means more natural finishing, with less covering. More natural finishing means that the tannery has to use more quality raw material to get a certain end quality. This causes more expense." The fact that Mlouye works with high-quality materials while keeping prices at $500 or less is a point of pride for the team.
Founded by a former Hermès craftsman, an award-winning designer and a sustainability scientist, Silent Goods is the label on this list that's most intentionally foregrounding environmentalism. The London-based direct-to-consumer brand launched on Kickstarter in 2017 with plans to unveil its full collection in 2018. It uses vegetable-tanned leather from a 140-year-old Swedish tannery to produce its bags, and manufactures in a Turkish factory that has been family-owned for five generations and has numerous ethical working condition certifications.
"The relationship between our London studio and the factory is not the usual designer-factory relationship," says creative director Oliver Ruuger. "Silent Goods is built from the ground up in partnership with our factory Petek. We're sincerely trying our hardest to bring change to how things are made in our industry, and the biggest changes need to be made at manufacturing level."
Other measures the brand has taken toward more ethical processes include the commissioning of a unique typeface that uses less ink, the sourcing of pre-used shipping boxes from supermarkets, timeless product design that's largely immune to trends and untraceable digital tagging that removes the need for hangtags.
Ashley Cimone and Moya Annece, the duo behind direct-to-consumer label Ashya, have concentrated on one thing and one thing alone since launching in 2017: leather belt bags. And considering the degree of elegance they bring to the category, it's not hard to see why. Focused on creating a visual "ode to exploration," Ashya's elevated take on the fanny pack is perfect for the modern traveler who wants a cool on-the-go look, as exemplified by the brand's hauntingly beautiful lookbooks.
All of Ashya's unisex bags are designed in Brooklyn and produced by a regularly-visited studio in NYC's garment district, where they are also fitted with hardware that is custom-made for the brand locally. The co-founders recently began more deeply investigating the ethics of their leather suppliers, which are located in Italy and South America.
"There are about five sets of hands maximum that touch each bag in the manufacturing process," Cimone says via email. "We visit the manufacturing studio often so are very much involved in the process."