Vegan bags with a cork alternative to leather: Meet Willow Earth

Willow Earth is a small family-run business based in Sussex, England with a mixture of business and art and design backgrounds. They started out with one mission: to create beautifully crafted products that reflect our values, including respect towards all animals, and an acceptance of our planet’s limits. They all enjoy nature and were inspired by the countryside around them when they first started producing their collection of unique travel bags and accessories. They choose natural materials that are responsibly sourced, vegan and plastic free and their packaging is all recycled or recyclable. At Willow Earth they work with global partners who offer fair wages, care for their workers and practice sustainable production. 

Their ethos

Their mission is to make Willow Earth as sustainable as possible: their products are vegan and ethically sourced with no plastic involved at any stage in the process. Willow earth products are designed by them here in East Sussex, and manufactured by their sustainable trading partners in India.

  • Cork

Cork acts as a sustainable and vegan alternative to leather that is a by-product of the bottling industry. Cork is sustainable, being harvested from cork oak trees every 9 years without needing to fell the trees. The end material is durable, soft to touch, and hypoallergenic. It is made up of a honeycomb-like structure that is full of air pockets, which makes it light and waterproof.

If you wanna get geeky, here’s the science!

Cork contains Suberin, a large molecule responsible for the formation of new cells that allows the trees to keep growing new layers of cork

It takes nine years for the layer of cork to grow on the tree before the bark can be harvested. After this, phellogen, a protective tissue found in the outer bark of three, facilitates secondary growth and the process starts again.

Harvesting the cork from trees does not require the trees to be felled. The trees require a lot of sunlight and high humidity but not a huge amount of rainfall and so mostly grow in places like Portugal and Spain. Cork forests can absorb up to 32million tons of CO2 per year!

Cork is therefore one of the most environmentally friendly and sustainable vegan alternative to leather.

The structure of cork looks a bit like honeycomb, with cells arranged regularly and without any gaps.

The density of this structure and the chemical composition is dependant on the age of the tree as well as geographical, soil and climate factors.

The hexagonal structures filled with air makes cork light, elastic, and compressible.

Due to the structure of cork and the high volume of Suberin and lignin as well as other waxes and polysaccharides forming multiple cell walls, the end material is almost completely waterproof.

This also makes cork totally hypoallergenic, not absorbing any dust! 


All of Willow Earth packaging, as with their products, is 100% plastic free. They only use recyclable and compostable materials.

They thought a lot about how they wanted to send your order, from biodegradable polybags to boxes made of seeds. They decided that they wanted to add as little to the earth as possible. Biodegradable polybags are a lot better than plastic, however a lot of the polybags are oxo-biodegradable and some experiments have shown they leave behind small fragments of plastic. They loved the idea of a plantable box which had seeds in it and could grow in to something new… however they didn’t think our airport Customs would have the same view!

So they decided to go with the humble cardboard and paper. All of their goods come in to them from their supplier in paper, with no tape, plastic or styrofoam and they head out to you in the same way! They use a variety of envelopes and boxes and sometimes add a compostable bag (this can go straight in to your compost or food waste bin) if it needs a bit of extra cushioning. Their boxes are then taped shut with kraft paper which is also recyclable and compostable. You can throw the whole thing straight on to the compost heap!

They’ve also taken steps to reduce waste inside the boxes. We need to send you details of your order and your returns slip as well as sticking your address on the front of your packaging. So, we designed a way we could put all of these on to one piece of paper with one section where we can peel off your shipping label! This comes tucked in to a card envelope with a big thank you, some information about us and a tree certificate if you bought a bag!


Once they are at the stage where they are interested in pursuing a partnership with a supplier, they are sent the Willow Earth supplier agreement. This questionnaire is based on the Ethical Trade Initiative’s Base Code, and covers 9 areas that must be met before they start working together. This is to ensure that they work with partners that offer fair wages, provide good working conditions, and do not practice discrimination. If you would like to find out more about this, you can read the agreement below.

They care a lot about where their bags come from and the people who are working hard making them. During the development stages of their products, they built up trust and a relationship with their partners and they continue to be impressed by the high quality samples they send them. Most of them had never worked with cork as a replacement for leather before and had not come up against a lot of their plastic-free and environmental requirements but they continue to work excitedly on all the things we throw at them!


1. Employment is freely chosen

Full explanation: – There is no forced, bonded, or involuntary prison labour. – Workers are not required to lodge ‘deposits’ or their identity papers with you, and are free to leave employment after reasonable notice.

2. Working conditions are safe and hygienic

Full explanation: * Workers are given a safe and hygienic environment. * All workers are trained in health and safety procedures * Workers are given access to clean toilet facilities, and drinking water. Where appropriate, sanitary facilities for food storage are provided. * If accommodation is provided, it should be clean and safe. * Health and safety is overseen by a senior member of the company.

3. Living wages are paid

Full explanation: * Wages paid at least meet national legal standards, and are adequate enough to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income. * Employment conditions with regards to wages are made clear to workers prior to entering employment. * Wages are never deducted as a form of discipline. Any other deductions must be agreed upon by employees.

4. Working hours are not excessive

Full explanation: * Working hours must comply with national laws. * Working hours (before overtime) are defined by a contract, and do not exceed 48 hours per week. * All overtime work is voluntary. Overtime work should be used in moderation, and should not be used to replace regular employment. Overtime should be paid at a premium rate of at least 1.25 times the regular rate of pay. * Total hours worked in any seven day period should not exceed 60 hours, except in the following conditions:

* This is permitted by national law. * Appropriate safeguards are taken to protect the health and safety of workers. * Exceptional circumstances have occurred, such as unexpected production peaks, accidents or emergencies. * The collective body of workers have freely negotiated this with you. – Workers shall be provided with at least day off in every seven day period, or two days off in every 14 day period.

5. No discrimination is practiced

Full explanation: * There is no discrimination in hiring, compensation, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement based on race, caste, national origin, religion, age disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, union membership or political affiliation.

6. Regular employment is provided

Full explanation: * Work should be based on recognised employment following national law and practice. * Obligations to employees regarding labour or social security are not avoided through re-framing the contractual agreement. For example by using labour-only contracting, sub-contracting, home-working apprenticeships schemes etc.

7. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are respected

Full explanation: * All workers have the right to join or form trade unions and to bargain collectively. * No discrimination is carried out against workers representatives, and are able to carry out their duty in the workplace. * In cases where freedom of association or collective bargaining is restricted under law, you are open to alternative means of independent or free association and bargaining.

8. No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed

Full explanation: – Physical abuse or discipline, the threat of physical abuse, sexual or other harassment and verbal abuse or other forms of intimidation are prohibited.

9. Child labour is not used

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