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  • 02.08.17

This Paper Backpack Makes A Fashion And Sustainability Statement

The eco-friendly Square bag is pushing back against wasteful practices in making leather. Don’t worry, you won’t even know it’s made from paper.

A typical vegan leather bag might be made from polyurethane or PVC (or even pineapple waste). A new imitation-leather backpack, instead, actually made from paper.

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The paper–blended with a felt material and strengthened with polymer micro-particles–is designed to be durable, washable, resistant to water and grease, and look and feel similar to leather.

“We found that the material could be an alternative to leather, as it has similar attributes,” says Bernd Nijen Twilhaar, co-founder of Paper, the Berlin-based startup making the new backpack. Unlike leather, however, it avoids the carbon footprint, pollution, and animal suffering involved with producing the material from a cow.

In searching for the most sustainable alternative to leather, this paper, made from fast-growing birch trees that are responsibly forested in Scandinavia, won out. The designers found that it had substantial advantages over other materials they considered. “It doesn’t require as much water as cotton,” says Twilhaar. “It’s sourced closer to where we produce, i.e. less transportation is required. All chemicals used in the process are successfully retrieved and reused; it is more durable and thus will last significantly longer than hemp; and no animals were hurt or involved.”

It took over a year to find production suppliers that could meet the founder’s sustainability requirements. “Some suppliers claimed to be sustainable but we could not find explicit information proving that this was actually true,” says co-founder Sebastian Boll. “So we had to dig deeper and ask and check for relevant information. It took us a long time before we actually found all our suppliers that fulfilled all the criteria.”

The company plans to visit each stage of the supply process–from the German facility where the fabric is mixed, to Italy where the “leather” is tanned–to make a video to show customers, as part of an effort to be more transparent than a standard fashion company. According to a 2013 study from the Danish Fashion Institute, the fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. Paper’s locally produced, “slow fashion” approach aims to counter waste at every step of the supply chain.

The minimal, square shape of the backpack, called Square, is designed to reduce waste in production. It’s also meant to be something consumers will keep. “By not following seasonal fashion trends and fads, we aim to make it timeless and something that people won’t throw away after a year,” says designer Katharina Boll.

Ultimately, it can also be recycled; the designers plan to use parts like zippers in new bags, and the paper material can be recycled into new paper stock. To round out the cycle of sustainability, Paper claims it will plant a new tree for every bag it sells.

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The startup is crowdfunding on Kickstarter and will launch a second campaign on Indiegogo’s InDemand site.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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