If you’re looking at a “vegan” bag, nine times out of ten, what you’re being sold is pure, unadulterated polyurethane. Fossil-derived plastic, marketed as the cruelty-free option. And, of course, that isn’t entirely wrong.
To paraphrase the 1995 movie Jumanji: “A little PU never hurt anyone – but a lot can kill you.” Which is to say that, actually, even some of the more forward-thinking brands use a less-impactful PU variant to coat their product for durability purposes. (Although, of course, it’s worth noting that a world without rain would be extraordinarily bad for us and for the planet whereas a world without polyurethane would be a very good thing for both.)
The best of the bunch, though, are those who – using recycled or lower-impact PU for now as a part of their offering – are already working toward something more innovative. Something better.
What’s interesting, though, is how few bag and accessory brands are dedicated to alternative materials as a sincere part of their process – let alone how few make it their USP.
Australian label Sans Beast falls into that rarer, latter category. Rarer still, its products come under the “premium” category, rather than “luxury.” Despite working with innovators at the sharpest point of the cutting edge of the materials sector, this makes them considerably more accessible to a much broader audience than other materially-progressive bags, which tend to be released by high-end labels on a smaller scale than their main-line products.
For example, where Sans Beast’s Illuminate Handbag – created using Natural Fiber Welding’s plastic-free MIRUM® product – is priced at $237 USD, Stella McCartney’s Falabella MIRUM® Tiny Tote Bag comes in at $1,170 USD. Obviously money isn’t the be-all and end-all here – and, obviously, with the McCartney bag you’re also paying for the name – but, knowing these are produced from the same material, the discrepancy proves that quality doesn’t have to come at such a high price. (And it certainly doesn’t have to come at the price of animal cruelty.)
Passionate about quality and innovation – about creating the best possible product whilst contributing to a better future – Sans Beast founder Cathryn Wills speaks clearly and candidly about setting a new standard for premium-quality, planet-friendlier bags, about how and why the fashion mainstream has yet to catch up with innovation, and balancing style with substance.
Cathryn Wills: “I set out to create a brand that could sit alongside leather handbags in the premium (not luxury) brand sector – in terms of style and appeal – yet not use animal products. I also wanted to bring rich + inspiring storytelling to the brand alongside charitable alignments. All that we’re doing is what I set out to do, yet we are still in relatively early days, and there have been many learnings along the way that will inform our future planning.”
In terms of both the premium and luxury sectors that you mention, from your experience, would it be easy (or easy enough) for those brands to scale the kinds of innovative, lower-impact materials that you use if they actually wanted to?
CW: “I don’t think anything that confronts the status quo is easy. Big businesses have large teams, boards of directors and potentially shareholder responsibilities – and those at the top (and often all the way through) often lack a true vision that is steeped in ethics. And in fairness, that’s not what they’re employed for. So, I think it’s all a challenge – for big and for small businesses – to embrace new-gen materials, and to give them the investment and the time, to be adopted by their brand citizens.”
Speaking of vision and ethics, how do you choose your partners in terms of materials? Natural Fiber Welding, AppleSkin, Desserto – these are all great, hugely innovative companies, but they’re not the only ones out there.
CW: “Ingredients, aesthetics, price, quality, location (for shipping) are all aspects of the sourcing process. I feel confident we’ve looked at many options in this space, and for the polish and aesthetic we’re seeking, we have the right partners. Chatting to people at Lineapelle this week, it’s clear there is more happening in this space, so no doubt we’ll be testing additional materials over the next 12 months.”
With that in mind, are there any other materials that you’re excited to work with?
CW: “Wastea is a relatively new material that uses the waste from the tea industry, we’re looking forward to seeing how this makes up. There are also a couple of startups we’re talking with, but they’re still in R+D phase + not at sampling stage as yet. As an independent brand, we need to keep our material sourcing focused – there’s the financial commitment for one, plus, we want to be meaningful to raw material suppliers, so dabbling in many (long term) is not the answer. For now it’s true we are testing a variety of animal free materials, but in time we’ll distil this list + build these connections to a deeper level.”
Balancing design in terms of style and aesthetic with a sense of substance, in terms of material and ethics, can be a fine line to walk. Is there ever any kind of trade-off?
CW: “Designing and manufacturing handbags for the fashion market is not straightforward, it takes time, creative and construction skill, great manufacturing partners (who are often the unsung heroes of brands), and – of course – investment. I would like to see us using more bio-based materials in time, but we need to move slowly given the price variation in materials.
I’m not sure this is a trade-off, rather it’s part of the challenge of growing a business that has an ethical vision whilst still remaining commercially viable, and taking our brand community on that journey one step at a time.
You can find Sans Beast’s bags and accessories online at the brand’s official website, and – if all this whets your appetite for further discussion – you can read more about how innovators like Natural Fiber Welding are scaling their plant-based materials in an effort to change the fashion industry for good.