By Christina Sewell
As more and more consumers wake up to the high costs of cheap clothes–from workers poisoned by toxic chemicals to landfills brimming with discarded garments–“ethical” and “sustainable” have become two of the biggest buzzwords in the fashion industry. But if you ask me, unless that jacket or pair of shoes is vegan, applying those terms is just greenwashing. That’s because producing leather, wool, cashmere, and other animal-derived materials pollutes the planet, endangers workers’ health, and causes animals to suffer needlessly.
Despite some reports from magazines like Eluxe, claiming that vegan leather does much damage to the environment, the groundbreaking Pulse of the Fashion Industry report released last year by the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group found that three of the four most environmentally damaging materials are derived from animals. Leather is the worst offender.
Since leather is a lucrative “co-product” (not a byproduct, as is so often claimed) of the unsustainable meat industry, this is hardly surprising. Raising and killing animals for their flesh and skins wastes so many resources and causes so much destruction that it’s hard to know where to begin in describing the problem.
There’s the massive amount of land involved in livestock production and the energy required to operate factory farms, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks that transport animals. There’s the wasted water and the crops that are used to feed animals instead of hungry, malnourished human beings.
The billions of animals killed by the meat industry every year also create a lot of waste–in the U.S. alone, factory-farmed animals produce 130 times more excrement than the human population does. This waste–untreated, unsanitary, and bubbling with chemicals–may be left to decompose in huge lagoons or be sprayed over crop fields, resulting in run-off that contaminates nearby soil and waterways. Then there’s the climate-change connection: According to the Worldwatch Institute, animal agriculture is responsible for at least 51 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
And since the bulk of the environmental impact–a whopping 93 percent according to the luxury-fashion conglomerate Kering–associated with leather production occurs before the skins are sent to tanneries, touting “green” processing methods, such as those used to create vegetable-tanned and chrome-free leather, is really just more greenwashing.
By contrast, polyurethane leather (PU) has less than half the impact on the environment than animal-derived leather does. Just let that sink in for a second: Animal-derived leather is more than twice as harmful to the environment as polyurethane, which is a plastic! According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, wool is the fourth worst material when it comes to harming the environment (silk is number two, and conventionally grown cotton is number three).
That’s right: as with other animal-derived materials, wool production gobbles up precious resources. Land has been cleared and trees have been cut down to make room for grazing sheep, which has led to increased soil salinity, erosion, and decreased biodiversity. In the first half of the 20th century, Patagonia, Argentina, was second to Australia in wool production. But local sheep farmers’ scale of operations outgrew the ability of the land to sustain it. Soil deterioration in the region triggered a desertification process that, according to National Geographic, “brought the industry to its knees.”
Cashmere also has a large global footprint. Goats have a voracious appetite and will eat a plant’s roots along with the rest of the plant–killing it. As the number of goats used for cashmere has soared across Mongolia–they now make up 60 percent of the country’s livestock–so has the number of overgrazed areas, and once-green pastures have been swallowed up by sand. Dust storms unleashed by this overgrazing have sent plumes of pollution as far away as North America.
Now factor in the toxic chemicals needed to keep animal-derived materials from decaying. PETA’s affiliate PETA Germany investigated the billion-dollar leather industry in Bangladesh. It was documented that tannery workers, including children, perform hazardous tasks such as soaking hides in chemicals. The unprotected workers stand barefoot in cancer-causing chemicals and use acids that can cause chronic skin conditions. An estimated 90 percent will die before the age of 50.
We don’t need to wait to display our eco-chic sensibilities: Innovative vegan options–including pineapple-leaf leather (called Piñatex), soy-based “vegetable cashmere,” shoesmade from recycled plastic bottles, wool made from seaweed and hemp, and many others–are already available. Sustainable style is here, and it doesn’t come from an animal.
What’s your opinion on this important topic? We’d love to hear from you!
Christina Sewell is the assistant manager of clothing campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; www.PETA.org.
Main image: Sofie Bly
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