O My Bag is an eco-friendly brand that produces sustainable and fairly-made handbags and accessories in Kolkata, India. Style and quality are not sacrificed for principle, because for O My Bag they’re one and the same.
Mid 2010, Paulien Wesselink, the founder of O My Bag, traveled to India to visit leather manufacturers. Leather is one of India’s biggest export products, so she met with dozens of diverse producers. Paulien wanted to set up a social enterprise that would not only become profitable, but also give back by approaching business in a fair, sustainable manner. This was not going to be your ordinary bag, and a responsible approach was key.
This is how slow fashion brand: O My Bag started.
What is the story of O My Bag and how did you get the idea to create sustainable bags?
I started O My Bag 8 years ago because I believe we can use the power of business to create social change. The classes I took at university on global issues like development aid, shaped my ideas. It made me realize that fair trade can create social change. People can live better lives when they are given equal access to the global marketplace.
Why bags? I missed a certain type of bag in the market. Sophisticated, but not boring. Casual, with an edge. Also, a bag is always a treat, a happy purchase and a bag always fits!
Can you explain to us a bit more about the process of making an O My Bag from scratch, to the final product?
The design is done at our HQ in Amsterdam. Everybody in our small team brings ideas to the table for the new collection. Jessica, our Product Manager, and I work them out and visit our producers in India twice a year to develop new designs, discuss current designs and issues and visit social projects and do other research and development. The tanning process is a very elaborate, but interesting, process. After the tanning is done, the leather arrives at the producers, where our bag makers get started. The first step is checking the hides for ticks and then cutting it in the desired pieces. This is a very precarious job because we want to use as much of the hide as possible and not be wasteful, so we also use the smaller pieces for our little accessories too. We also stress to our consumers that we don’t see marks and ticks as flaws, but natural parts of the bag that make it unique.
Your brand is based in The Netherlands, however, you’ve decided to produce the bags with craftsmen and local communities in India. Why India and what is the connection you have with this country?
From a young age, I’ve been aware of the fact that I’ve been lucky being born in the affluent Netherlands and into a loving family. I didn’t do anything to deserve all that I’ve gotten: women’s rights, democracy, a stable economy, relative wealth and so much more. It feels that this comes the responsibility to do right by others. I want to make a positive change for others, even if it’s only small.
Why India? After the first trip I knew for sure that this was the correct path for me. The colorful country and nice people amazed me and got me very excited to do this! Creating job opportunities in India by designing beautiful bags that people can get enthusiastic about? Win-win!
It seems that the brand is very involved with local communities, what does it mean for you to run a sustainable business?
Creating a positive impact in the world is one of our core values and is rooted in everything we do. We believe that by supporting conscious trade we can contribute to a better world with fairly-paid jobs, safe working environments, equal opportunities and respect for the environment. Creating jobs for minorities in India is our way of contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, like fighting poverty and women empowerment.
A great example of a partner that we’re very happy to support is Freeset Global. Freeset is a fair trade organization that provides employment for women who were trafficked into prostitution. This Black Friday we’re donating all profits to a project called ‘The Cup’.
You use vegetable-tanned leather, what is this exactly and why did you choose it specifically?
The process of turning animal hides into leather is called tanning. This treatment makes the skin soft, flexible and prevents it from decomposing. Vegetable tanned leathers use natural tannins for tanning. These are bio-synthetics instead of toxins and do not contain harmful chemicals. It makes use of the acids found in certain trees, plants and fruits. Even though it requires a great deal of knowledge and time, the result is a durable leather that develops beautifully as it ages.
You make the bags from leather; nowadays a lot of people prefer to avoid leather. What would you like to share about the eco-leather you use and why is it sustainable to use eco-leather the way you do?
We do not use any alternative synthetic materials that are called vegan leather alternatives. Alternatives to real leather are made from PU, PVC or other composite microfibers (plastics), which produce many harmful toxins in the production process and don’t fully biodegrade. These alternatives will never last as long or age and develop over time. Our leather articles are designed to last, and will always outlast the plastic alternatives.
One of the most responsible things we can do for our planet is to only make high-quality products that can be worn and used for years. We make an effort to design timeless pieces that you can carry and cherish for years. In a circular economy the most beneficial circle is longevity, repair and reuse. Usually, it is a thread or zip that goes, rather than the leather itself. We make sure that we elongate the products lifetime by providing careful care tips and repairing when possible.
We believe that using vegetable tanned leather is currently the most sustainable option. The hides that are used to tan leather are a waste product that would otherwise be thrown away and a chrome-free vegetable tanned hide is a high-quality durable material. Chrome is a harmful chemical and when not used carefully can have a negative environmental impact. Since we produce in India, where pollution is an important risk, we chose to tan without chromium.
Where does your inspiration come from when designing the bags?
I always ask myself what would I want in the collection for myself, what I love right now and what I’ll love for years to come. We design for timelessness. The collection is pretty complete now; with party, business, travel, except from work-out and backpack gear, I think we have all parts of life covered!
Do you have any tips for our readers on how to start with slow fashion / ethical lifestyle? What kind of small daily actions do you do?
I’ve completely Marie Kondo’d my house and closet last year. She is the incredible writer of the book: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. I really like her approach. She says all possessions have to spark joy and if they don’t, then thank them for their service and part with them without any reservations. I find this idea of thinking very helpful in making sustainable decisions and use less and being more minimal.
I try to only buy clothes I need and choose quality items. I hope soon we’ll live in a world where it’s a given that clothes are made with safe labor conditions and no exploitation.