It’s not that easy to find fashion brands that are both principally vegan, fair and sustainable and sophisticated at the same time. But somehow, the Spanish Canussa gets it done.
I had the honour to meet with founder Maria Cano (43) and was stunned by her ambitions to make her designs as durable as possible – without even considering compromising class and style.
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When we start our Zoom interview, I find Maria sitting in the storage room of her office in Valencia, surrounded by beautiful vegan bags. The perfect location to discuss Maria’s drive and dreams to reshape the way we think about fashion. Let’s talk bags, shoes, belts and sustainability!
Maria, have you always been this passionate about more sustainable fashion?
"No, not at all. I studied software engineering and had no specific interest in working in the fashion industry. I was a programmer and always had management roles, but it never had anything to do with fashion. More with big vehicles like tractors and motors!
I worked hard but I felt that I didn’t add any value – like my job didn’t have any impact on society. So I needed to rethink my career."
"As a consumer, I loved fashion, but I was often disappointed by the poor quality of items. For example, I was struggling to find a good bag to carry my laptop. I wanted a good bag, not just a cotton tote bag, for example, you don't want your laptop to get damaged. And if you find a brand that focuses on firm quality, the style is often horrible!"
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"Maybe, I thought, I could do something about it myself? I had to do courses in designing and thankfully got help from a designer. Everything about the fashion industry I had to learn from scratch.
I started my business and I decided to only work with Spanish products, made by artisans from Spain. When so many companies moved production to Asian countries, I wanted to contribute to our own economy."
"Leather is the so-called ‘best quality fabric’, consumers prefer leather over anything else. But when I saw how leather was produced and how very bad the chrome is for the environment and for the people working in the tanneries, it changed the way I thought."
The use of chemicals is extreme and unregulated in leather tanning. To prevent the decomposition of skin, aggressive chemicals like chromium are used to preserve it and make it unrecognizable from its origins.
These chemicals flow largely untreated around tanneries. This creates a combination of reactions that are incredibly damaging to the people working there and the surrounding environment. Early deaths from cancer and skin diseases and dramatic skin bleaching are very real consequences.
"I wasn’t vegan back then, but I knew I wanted to reduce my impact on the environment. So I started selling chrome-free leather. Quality was of main importance. We generate so much waste, fashion items get ripped or broken so fast. And it’s true, animal leather will often last longer."
What made you change to plant-based leather?
"I started to think a lot about the ethical aspect of using animal skin. Sure, we can have a big discussion about ‘upcycling’ because leather is in many cases a by-product of the meat industry, but still. I started to watch PETA videos and I quit eating meat, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Now I’m vegan.
At first, the artisans I worked with didn’t want to work with a vegan alternative to leather, because they thought the quality would be less. But we found a great fabric, a microfiber, which is an extremely fine synthetic fiber, and they were so surprised!"
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"Many people think microfibers are not so sustainable, because they shed tiny plastic fibers in the washing machine for instance, but they can be recycled. That doesn't mean we stop looking for any other alternatives. We are testing new fabrics right now."
"We made a sample bag with this alternative to leather and I started using it for several months. I want to test all the fabrics and the products myself. I’m very picky. When I see any damage too quickly, then I know it’s not right for Canussa."
"What makes fashion sustainable is buying fewer products, but with higher quality. Every time we produce, we cause damage. So we should produce less. It’s that simple.
Microfibers are synthetical. Our ballerinas, for example, are made out of 60% corn, but they still contain PU. We really wanted to make it water-resistant. That’s also very important in the Netherlands, with all the rain!
Thanks for reminding me, Maria…
PU leather, the abbreviation of polyurethane leather, is an artificial leather made of thermoplastic long-lasting polymer: plastic with a similar feel and aspect to the leather, but 100% vegan.
Can you give an example of how you bring slow fashion into practice?
"Canussa produces timeless fashion. We don't do collections, our products can be used and worn for ten years, not just until the next season. We also don't do sales, we don’t want to provoke people to buy just because of a discount. That's the key to slow fashion."
"We also use reusable wrapping, I don't want plastic or paper to go to waste. Now, we have a protection bag from recycled cotton made in Spain, with a string to make it look like a present."
"It’s difficult, to be honest. I was used to a high living standard. I started this company with my own savings. I wanted to do it without investors, because I didn’t want to compromise my values. That has been difficult, I have a different lifestyle now than when I was a manager.
You have to give up many things. I had no idea what that was, ‘a sustainable lifestyle’, I used to have a beautiful car, now I go cycling everywhere. It’s difficult to be vegan in Spain, few people understand why I'm doing this. But I had these principles this to my own life as well."
"The people around me thought I had a midlife crisis when I changed my lifestyle and thought it would pass. Now they know it is serious. We’re selling in New York and Dubai! I could have made a lot more money as an entrepreneur if I had done something else. But I chose to do this."
"A bag has to be practical: it’s meant to carry stuff! Take our multifunctional hybrid bag that comes in four colours. The belts are reversible. It’s a bag and clutch and purse and cross body and fanny pack in one!
In so many different ways, you can wear it to many different occasions, so you will use it a lot. The outside has a bit of a minimalistic look, the colours are timeless and easy to combine. These are the conditions for an item to be used for a long time."
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The multifunctional bag comes in four colours
"We, as consumers, decide where and how we spend our money. We can make a change. For example, I don’t want to buy anything from companies that avoid paying taxes. And as a CEO I only want to work together with ethical partners who share our ethics, like Shop Like You Give a Damn."
We love you too, Maria! What are your plans for the near future?
"In a while, we want our customers to give back the shoes and bags at the end of their lives. We will then destroy them and incorporate the materials into a new product. That includes all the different components and the detachment of all the different parts. That is extremely difficult and expensive. We will be able to be 100% circular in the future, but not just now.
And of course, we want more sustainable alternatives with the same quality as microfibers.
We don't do sales and we don’t sell quickly. But we do have some stock. This can be a problematic, sometimes. Therefore, I would like to produce on demand. That's not that simple, but it's something for the future. We’re also working more on circularity and green printing. I’m ambitious!"
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Thank you so much, Maria! You’re making the world a more beautiful place one Canussa bag at a time. Please come and visit us in rainy Amsterdam, we know you already have the appropriate shoes!