Clothes Fashion

Why I Think Vegan Fashion Is Always The More Sustainable Option

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.

In my opinion, the only truly sustainable options are cruelty-free, like those produced by Sofie Bly (main image), Matt & Nat (second image) or Ethique 212 (above).

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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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Lucy Post
    Mar 15, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Thank you for this important piece! There is nothing eco-friendly about fashions that cause animals to suffer and die.

  • Reply
    Allison Cares
    Mar 15, 2018 at 9:46 pm

    What a strong statement; I couldn’t agree more. I’m currently transitioning my entire wardrobe to sustainable, ethical and most of all vegan shoes and clothing. You should, too : )

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Mar 16, 2018 at 3:08 am

      Good luck with the transition, Allison! xx

  • Reply
    KimMarie
    Mar 15, 2018 at 9:58 pm

    Thank you for such an enlightening article! There really is NO reason to kill and maim animals for their hair and skins.

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Mar 16, 2018 at 3:07 am

      #veganpower! 🙂

  • Reply
    Heather Moore
    Mar 15, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    I only wear vegan fabrics. They’re compassionate and stylish, two things that are always in style.

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Mar 16, 2018 at 3:07 am

      Well said, Heather! 🙂

  • Reply
    Jennofur
    Mar 16, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    It baffles me that anyone thinks they look “attractive” in fur or leather. Draping yourself in dead animals’ body parts is grotesque.

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Mar 16, 2018 at 7:18 pm

      Agreed! And let’s not even talk about EATING those body parts, too….!

  • Reply
    Alden Wicker
    Mar 20, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    First of all, that World Watch paper was never published in a peer reviewed journal, and was seriously questioned by leading climate scientists, yet is the only “scientific” paper suggesting that animal agriculture is responsible for half of all emissions. Globally, fossil fuel-based energy is responsible for about 60% of human greenhouse gas emissions, with deforestation at about 18%, and animal agriculture between 14% and 18% (estimates from the World Resources Institute, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Pitesky et al. 2009). The most recent paper (https://quantis-intl.com/measuring-fashion-report-2018/) on fashion’s effect on climate change suggests that in order to draw down fashion’s climate impact, the best thing we can do is *move countries that manufacture our clothing away from dirty fuel and make the factories more efficient.* That is what they determined after doing an incredibly deep dive into fashion’s full supply chain. The Pulse of Fashion report you mention very notably said that they were not including toxicity of materials, but hoped to include them in the future. And to suggest to these readers that they best thing they can do is buy plastic alternatives to leather is laughable. Perhaps PU has a lower footprint than leather when you compare two sheets side by side, but since PU gives out after one year, and leather can last your whole life time and beyond, you’re merely sending people out to buy more low-quality (but expensive, because it’s vegan!) fashion that they then will throw away. Believe me, I tried my best on vegan fashion, and have watched all my vegan shoes develop holes within a few wears and been turned away by shoe repair professionals because they’re not worth saving, even the expensive brands. While I’ve worn leather purses and shoes multiple times a week for years and then had them cheaply and easily repaired. Plus, polyester is responsible for microfiber shedding, which is ending up in the guts of marine life, and is actually now in your tap water and bottled water. Yup! You’re drinking that stuff. But of course, PETA cares more about fuzzy animals than fish or people.

    Go vegetarian and eat less meat, yes! But don’t browbeat people into buying overpriced plastic fashion and tell them they’re morally superior for doing so.

    • Reply
      Sascha
      Mar 20, 2018 at 8:40 pm

      Just a response re the PU: I have faux-leather trousers, jackets, shoes and bags that have lasted me years and are still going strong, while my last pair of leather boots broke after a year. The last leather jacket I had before going vegan is now completely unwearable because of holes and signs of wear, and it’s not even that old. So “leather lasts longer” isn’t always true – it’s an old notion that’s being proved wrong every day by the high-quality, long-lasting, durable vegan options out there. I recently bought a Matt and Nat bag from a charity shop and it looks brand new despite being pre-used. Matt and Nat also make their linings from 100% recycled plastic bottles, which is pretty brilliant. I’d like to see at least one so-called “luxury” fashion brand (not Stella McCartney) do that. But of course, luxury fashion cares more about profits than animals – or people, for that matter.

      • Reply
        Holly Rose
        Mar 21, 2018 at 11:27 pm

        That’s incredibly strange. Walk into any vintage shop or second-hand store and you’ll see the walls lined with leather items that were made before either of us were born. I do this for a living, in the past two years I’ve been writing about sustainability I have studied the circular story behind every single product I use, subscribing to no single dogma as I don’t want to be blinded by ideals. I’ve tried every single leather alternative available on the market (apart from Mushroom leather, which I can’t wait to see put to use) and every single one lasts less than 6 months. Perhaps the leather you bought was from Forever 21 or brands of the like who yes, use leather, but no, don’t make products with care, so of course, they’ll fall apart. Be careful as you delve into the Vegan movement that you educate yourself by reading the scientific research behind the sound bite articles (like this one) which pull a small portion of the circular story to push their own views. You’ll be a better vegan and a better human if you do xx

  • Reply
    Holly Rose
    Mar 20, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Hey There, though I’m all for avoiding animal harm, I think an article like this with sweeping statements – most of which is supported by sound bites which only look at a portion of the circular story behind the issue – is dangerous. Products which don’t biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle cause harm to the planet and its inhabitants, including animals. Sure, might not be the cute ones, but it harms them and the knock-on effects are horrific. This doesn’t even consider all the energy and pollution caused by producing man-made materials from non-renewable resources, or dying them with toxic dyes. Pretending veganism is a paintbrush solution to the issues caused by consumption is untrue and unhelpful to the overall cause. It’s a colour in the crayon box of solutions, and if treated correctly and thoughtfully, with education, it can be one of many solutions to living a greener lifestyle. Unless you are a vegan who eats 100% local, seasonal, organic, unpackaged food who composts and recycles and produces less than a handful of garbage per year, you’re guilty of harming living things, especially fauna . Unless you’re wearing 100% organic biodegradable materials which have been produced with renewable energy and dyed with only natural vegetable dyes, you’re guilty of harming living things, especially fauna. Unless you’ve never driven or rode a plane, train or automobile, never used power, never bought an electronic, you’re guilty of harming living things, especially fauna. If you’ve ever bought anything housed in or made of plastic (including protein supplements / vegan cheese / vegan meats ect), you’re guilty of harming living things, especially fauna. The list could go on endlessly. The vegan diet and lifestyle is chalked full of hypocrisy which is built by lack of education and understanding of the circular story behind objects and habits that allegedly support the movement. This article contributes to that hypocrisy and, in the long run, the harm of both animals and humans. It’s propaganda, which is unfortunate coming from a PETA member who should know better than to promote products which harm the environment, humans and animals. This article causes more harm than good.

    • Chere
      Reply
      Chere
      Mar 20, 2018 at 6:45 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Holly! Agree with much of what you said except the last line: I think it’s always a good idea to get people thinking about these issues. 😉

      • Reply
        Holly Rose
        Mar 21, 2018 at 11:19 pm

        Hey Chere, so circular stories, cradle-to-cradle is the thing I feel is most important above all else. Cradle-to-gate (as Kamea mentions below) isn’t telling the whole tale about animal cruelty, so that’s what I mean by articles like this causing more harm than good <3

        • Chere
          Reply
          Chere
          Mar 22, 2018 at 2:57 am

          Maybe YOU should write the next guest post? You are very welcome to! 🙂 🙂 xx

  • Reply
    Kamea Chayne
    Mar 20, 2018 at 7:38 pm

    I think it’s key to raise awareness of all issues behind the scenes, and increased knowledge can only empower each person to make decisions more aligned with his/her personal values. For people who prioritize no harm to animals first and foremost, even if it means harm to the balance of ecosystems, and harm to environments, and harm to the big picture things like sustainability – this is a great reference. I am respectful to people who choose to do no harm to animals as the top priority.

    But sustainability of the planet, by definition, is about practices that can help our planet keep going on and on for as long as possible – it’s not about individual animals. It’s actually not even about the absolute total water usage, or energy usage, alone. It’s so much more complex than that. For a fiber harvested in the tropics, where natural rainfall is abundant, a higher water usage can be sustainable, in that environment. On the contrary, a fiber requiring low water usage, but if grown outside of its endemic regions in a desert, for example, makes that fiber not sustainable even with “less water usage.”

    A fiber using more energy, if using renewable energy, may have less environmental impact than a fiber using less energy, but where that energy is coming from coal.

    The thing to know about every study is they all have their limitations, and things are so much more complex than the “implications” that they suggest. Because every study looks at different measures, every study has differing confidence levels, different methods, etc.

    So to cherry pick studies (that acknowledge their own limitations) to back a black and white argument – I don’t think helps to deepen my understanding of the issues we face at all.

    It’s also communication 101 – the title of this article alone will attract people who already agree, but will push people who are just wanting to learn more and aren’t already on board away. So even if the goal were to inspire people (who aren’t vegan) to think more about these issues – the title, and the black and white, right and wrong message here are doing that goal a disservice.

    I respect Christina and Eluxe Magainze – I find your passion inspiring. But as someone who believes and know sustainability to be extremely complex with no simple answers, no right or wrong approach; as someone who’s been fortunate to have traveled to 45 countries to get to know people from all walks of life, who believe in all different things, who live sustainably in different ways, who live in different climates and environments conducive to different types of sustainable living; who are more or less tech-driven; who live more closely with nature, hunting and foraging their own food, or live more distantly and buy stuff and food from stores and online, removed from nature; and as someone who studied the psychology of behavioral change, I think there are much more effective ways to get people to think more deeply about these complex issues, and much more inviting ways to get people totally new to conscious fashion and sustainability to take their very first steps.

    Thank you for your time – I look forward to seeing what else you’ll be shedding light on. But hopefully in a more welcoming, inquisitive way, so that I can learn more objective information and so that this space can feel more inclusive to people no matter their backgrounds, beliefs, and values. Sustainability has to include everyone, and therefore has to feel more inclusive, and not more exclusive.

  • Reply
    Kamea Chayne
    Mar 20, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    **And – forgot to mention. The chart looked at from Pulse is “Cradle-to-gate” and doesn’t take into account toxicity, durability or material, or end of use. While we can lower our use of natural resources by buying less and buying second hand, or by making manufacturing processes more efficient, or by harvesting fibers needing more water usage more in the tropics and moving away from trying to grow/make water-intensive fibers in deserts (aligning the needs of fibers with the environments/climates they’re grown/made in), toxic chemicals are harmful to all life (plants, animals, us!) and cannot easily be filtered out once they’re out in the environment; and something like plastic that doesn’t biodegrade will only keep piling up while leaching toxic chemicals as they sit in landfills or in our oceans, harming our health, harming the health of all wildlife.

    Sustainability is a long term, big picture concept, and these two key long term measures with indirect effects left out of the study alone, which would hugely alter the conclusions of what’s more eco-friendly to favor all natural fibers over petro-based fibers, should be mentioned as limitations to this conclusion. xx

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