With vegan leather becoming a trending topic and sustainability making waves in the fashion industry, there’s one company that isn’t taking these as an afterthought.

Speaking from their eco-atelier in Thailand, we caught up with Deadly Ponies co-founder Liam Bowden who explained how the New Zealand-born brand is challenging the traditional notions of design, whilst ensuring their practices are environmentally considered.

After working in the business for over 15 years, Bowden has witnessed a shift in consumer perception in the last five years. He noticed customers started wanting to know more about the products they were buying, who was making them and what they were made from.

In some ways, he believes they may have felt guilty about not knowing anything about the origins of their favourite handbag or what’s really in their daily moisturiser, and they wanted to be more aware of sustainable and ethical practices.

“There’s definitely a big wave of new people coming through that are purchasing more consciously.”

When visiting the Deadly Ponies website, you can learn everything about their process, from the manufacturing to the materials and how they’re consciously making things more sustainable. It’s rare to find such transparency from any brand and Bowden insists this communication is so important.

“It’s not going to happen overnight but I hope there’s a little part of what we do that helps encourage or force other companies to make a change too.”

By showing the good and the bad side of business practices, he hopes that it can start conversations around production and materials which is often kept hidden from the consumer.

Although it sounds ethical, vegan leather has become a new buzzword and it’s being pushed and promoted by all kinds of companies who may not be doing the right thing. Bowden explains that a lot of these “vegan leather” products are more harmful to the environment as they’re made from virgin materials and chemicals that are not biodegradable to create a cheap material that won’t last.

After demand from their own customer base, Deadly Ponies set out to create their own vegan leather and after extensive research they discovered a unique source: the cactus. Even though the product is already plant-based, the harvesting process ensures that no part is wasted. The flesh inside the cactus is used for pharmaceutical purposes, while the rough outer layer is sun-dried to replicate a textured hide.

While browsing their curated collection of bags, wallets and leathergoods, you won’t find any trend-based colours like neon greens or electric blues, which as Bowden explains, is intentional.

Their creative process involves making something that won’t just be used for a season and quickly ditched, but rather treasured and cared for.

One element of sustainability that isn’t talked about as often, is properly caring for the products you buy. A lot of leather products require routine maintenance and polishing to ensure the barrier is protected against the elements.

Bowden explains that leather is like your skin, you need to give it moisture and “the more love you give it, the better it’s going to look”.

He emphasises that their products can last a lifetime if you treat them with care and respect. Deadly Ponies even have their own care kit available to purchase with your item that you can use for leather bags, shoes and belts to extend their longevity.

When the handle on your favourite bag breaks or you find a tear that just can’t be fixed, most of the time your first reaction would be to throw it away. Deadly Ponies is aiming to change this mindset with their ​​in-store amnesty programme. When you bring in a bag that is at the end of its life, you’re opening up a world of opportunities, as Bowden explains:

“If the bag is repairable, we can restore it. Last year we worked with a charity called Dress For Success which is about bringing women back to the workforce after challenges they might have had in their life, so we were able to be a part of giving them an outfit to make them feel confident as they’re going through the interview process. “

If the product is quite damaged and well-worn it gets brought back to the workshop where it is taken apart for assessment. Hardware like zips and clasps are sent back to the foundry and melted down where they become paperweights or household objects. The leather pieces are re-conditioned and can become keycharms, coasters or notebook covers. Rather than leaving the customer out, Deadly Ponies include them as part of the process as Bowden explains:

“So when a customer drops it off, they’ll get a notification that the product is at our workshop and we’re working through it. Then they’ll also be notified at the end to say your bag has contributed to be able to make this beautiful new product and if they want to they can go back and purchase that item that they might love.”

So what’s next for Deadly Ponies? After innovating some of the most sustainable and ethical business practices, Bowden summarises it as “waiting for the rest of the world to catch up”.

He goes on further to say that sadly there are not enough companies or large-scale businesses that can create commercial plants like those used for biodegradable bags, so it is a bit of a waiting game. Although this doesn’t mean his work isn’t slowing down.

As it so happens, their next goal is to be zero-waste certified by the end of 2022. An ambitious target, but not one that they take lightly. Deadly Ponies is currently working with their Italian tanneries to create leather from recycled scraps mulched into a fibre-like pulp, then binded with natural rubber or wood bark to achieve a similar look and feel. Bowden explains that this would be a pivotal moment for the business.

“...essentially we’re never creating something new, we’re not wasting anything, it’s just the cycle of the product coming in. So that would be the end-goal.”

Image credit: Deadly Ponies