First I Look at the Purse: Eco-Bags for Every Occasion

Some believe you can tell a lot about a person by the bag they carry. Purses, messenger bags, backpacks and luggage made from recycled materials and sustainable fibers don’t just make a statement about their owners’ fashion sense, but about their environmental ethics as well. We’ve made your green shopping easier by rounding up some of the most popular and stylish eco-bags on the market today.

License Plate Redux

If the definition of creativity is the ability to see things where others can’t, then the term certainly applies to Ava DeMarco and her husband Rob Brandegee, who one day looked at used license plates and saw handbags. The couple had launched their company, Littlearth Productions, in 1993 with a mission to match style with eco-consciousness. At first, license plates were used as ornaments on recycled rubber bags. Then they became the bags themselves, twisted into colorful cylindrical purses. And the crowds have gone wild. Littlearth’s recycled license plate handbags can be found in more than 1,000 retail outlets, and in the clutches of everyone from Oprah to Chelsea Clinton. “Everything we make is one of a kind, because all license plates are unique,” says DeMarco.

© Brian C. Howard

From the get-go, Littlearth wanted to ensure that all its products were made using a low-impact manufacturing process. Once saved from the landfill, the plates are minimally processed—simply cleaned, trimmed and then rolled and bent into shape. The bags” rubber straps contain recycled content and the inserts are recycled paper. Last year, Littlearth actively recycled more than 15 tons of rubber and 40,000 license plates.

Rubber Goes Upscale

Favorite bags tend to take a beating, so durability is key. Rubber, it turns out, is a perfect substitute for leather, as Mandana MacPherson realized when she started making bags out of used inner tubes back in the 1980s. “I was taking art classes and I had ruined a leather bag by spilling ink,” explains MacPherson. “I wanted a rubber bag to carry art supplies around in, but there was nothing that would work for me.” So she and a friend went searching for materials to make such a bag themselves. After stumbling upon a stray inner tube in their school’s sculpture department, they played around with different assembly techniques until they developed a prototype messenger-style bag. It was immediately purchased by stores in Boston and New York, and soon after, Used Rubber USA was born.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Used Rubber’s bags are made today almost exactly as they were 20 years ago, with recyclable aluminum rivets and unprocessed dye-cut inner tubes. Their product line ranges from wallets to purses to briefcases, and are purchased by people with a variety of tastes—some drawn to the fact that the bags are black rubber, others drawn to their durability, others to their recycled origins. “The design is such that they are reparable, super durable, and classic so they won”t go out of style,” says MacPherson.

Finding raw materials is an interesting challenge for Used Rubber. The demand is great enough that the company has successfully used up the supply of discarded inner tubes in some parts of the Bay Area (an achievement of which they are justly proud), forcing a search for new tubes. It”s an ironic twist on resource management. “Normally you don”t want to use up a resource, but in this case it”s a good thing,” says MacPherson. Bay Area communities are grateful. “In Oakland they were doing a clean up and we took hundreds and hundreds of tubes,” she says. Used Rubber USA recovers an average of two tons of inner tubes each year.

“I”ve always been aware of the tire situation,” says Robin Gilson, president and founder of Vulcana, a company that makes bags out of recycled car tires. “They collect water; they are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could melt car tires down and reshape them?”” After taking a leave of absence from her job as an attorney in 1995, Gilson tracked down a company that would take recycled car tire crumb and mix it with natural rubber to create a material suitable for stitching into bags.

Vulcana”s product line, officially launched in 2001, ranges from cute little beaded evening clutches to sturdy messenger bags. “My idea was that it would be people just like me who had some money to spend and wanted to make a statement,” Gilson says. “I get a lot of older women, people with unusual tastes or people who care about the environment, or go to interesting boutiques to do their shopping.”

Vulcana takes 30 to 50 percent of its material from recycled car tires. The rest is virgin rubber, mostly from small, family-owned plantations in Malaysia. Some products are hemp-fused, which means the rubber is cured directly onto a hemp fabric. Gilson estimates that, so far, 1,000 tires that would have otherwise gone to the landfill are now transformed into one of her bags.

Pure and Simple Hemp

If you love a classic, natural look to your eco-friendly bag, try Ecolution’s line of hemp handbags, backpacks, duffel and garment bags. But don”t assume natural means bland. Most of Ecolution’s fabrics are vegetable dyed with such botanicals as oregano, oak bark, bilberry and pansy to create a vivid palate of colors. The synthetic dyes that are used are low impact, and safer for people with allergies and sensitivities than standard chemical dyes. All fibers are finished naturally—machine spun and oiled. The only major environmental output is hot water.

Ecolution’s hemp is organically grown in Romania, where the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc revealed a lively hemp-based economy that once serviced the Soviet military (Soviet uniforms were 50 percent hemp). While many Eastern Europeans struggle in their newly opened economies, Ecolution offers its Romanian employees fair wages, pensions and paid vacations. James Roberts, director of sales at Ecolution, sees these social goals as integral to the company’s environmental goals, noting that environmental responsibility without social responsibility is “too much of a contradiction to be relevant.”

The Wheels on the Bus

While eco-chic accessories are gaining prominence in the mainstream, each of these designers faces challenges in educating his or her clientele. In particular they must help the public overcome its tendency to think of recycled materials as garbage. DeMarco notes that even with license plates, “People want to buy an eco-conscious product but if it has a scratch on it, they’re bummed out. You have to educate the consumer about the history of the plate. The product may vary but that’s okay.”

MacPherson of Used Rubber has had to help her customers overcome the notion that they are buying something made from garbage. “It challenges the public’s eye as to what could be done with these materials,” she says.

MacPherson adds that many people who seek out “natural” products often overlook recycled because the aesthetics are often completely different. She urges other designers to push the boundaries of style. “It has to be a useful product; you can’t just sell “green,” he says. And with the range of bags emerging on the market, eco-conscious consumers will no longer be confined to yesterday”s design statements, but instead are changing the notion of style as personal statement.

Editors’ Note: In the headline to this story, we were referring to the concept of more environmentally responsible bags in general with the word “Eco-Bags,” not the New York-based company ECOBags ( in particular.