Ditch leather, wool and cashmere for good! Vegan fashion is more sustainable, always. Here’s why
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 vegan fashion is more sustainable, always. 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 that claim vegan leather does much damage to the environment, consumers still think leather can be ‘eco’. However, a 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. And guess what? Leather is the worst offender.
Why Vegan Fashion Is More Sustainable Than Leather
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. But let’s try.
First, there’s the massive amount of land involved in livestock production. Then, there’s the massive amounts of energy that go into operating factory farms, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks to transport animals. There’s the wasted water and the crops that are used to feed animals instead of hungry, malnourished humans.
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 is untreated, unsanitary, and bubbling with chemicals. It may be left to decompose in huge lagoons or be sprayed over crop fields. The result is run-off that contaminates nearby soil and waterways.
The Climate Change Connection
Then there’s the climate change connection. Vegan fashion is more sustainable for the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the Worldwatch Institute, animal agriculture is responsible for at least 51 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
Since the bulk of the environmental impact – a whopping 93 percent, according to 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 environmental impact as animal-derived leather. Just let that sink in for a second: Animal leather is more than twice as harmful to the environment as polyurethane. And it’s 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.
Hard Truths About Soft Fabrics
Vegan fashion is more sustainable for our soil, too. As with other animal-derived materials, wool production gobbles up precious resources. Land is cleared and trees are cut down to make room for grazing sheep. This has led to increased soil salinity, erosion, and decreased biodiversity.
For example, 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 them. Soil deterioration in the region triggered a desertification process which, 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. The number of goats used for cashmere has soared across Mongolia. They now make up 60 percent of the country’s livestock. As a result, 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. All so we can have softer sweaters.
Bad For Animals, Bad For People
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. They reported 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.
After looking at the evidence, it seems clear to me that vegan fashion is more sustainable than animal-based fashion. Always.
And that’s even truer now than ever before, given the incredible numbers of innovative vegan options that are now available. These include soy-based “vegetable cashmere,” shoes made from recycled plastic bottles, wool made from seaweed and hemp, and many leather alternatives. Some come from cactus, while others use food waste, such as pineapple fibres or apple skins.
The truth is: vegan fashion is more sustainable, it’s stylish, and frankly, it is the future.
What’s your opinion on this important topic? Do you think vegan fashion is more sustainable, always? We’d love to hear from you!