Is “Vegan” Fashion Always Best?

WRITTEN BY Hannah Ernst

April 14, 2023

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Is “Vegan” Fashion Always Best?

by | Apr 14, 2023 | Fashion & Lifestyle

Hannah Ernst

14 Apr, 2023

There is no doubt that vegan textiles are becoming more and more popular as they are always the more animal-friendly alternative. But are they also more eco-friendly?

By now, countless studies have shown that a vegan diet is less harmful to the environment than one containing regular meat and dairy intake. This prevailing boom in vegan nutrition is now rubbing off on vegan fashion. We often assume that vegan textiles are the more eco-friendly alternative to their animal counterparts — especially when looking at leather. But does vegan leather deserve the hype? And is there a “one size fits all” solution?

What materials are considered vegan?

A vegan material does not use any animal-based resources such as animals’ skin, fur, or wool. It does not matter whether the animal continues to live beyond the point of material extraction. That means that wool, cashmere, or silk would not be considered vegan. Instead, vegan materials are made from either plant-based resources (cotton, hemp, viscose, linen, etc.) or are manmade manufactured materials that often try to mimic the properties of their animal counterparts — we will focus on the latter.

Vegan fashion wins ethics

From an ethical perspective, it becomes clear that vegan fashion is always an animal-friendly choice. Animals like cattle, goats, sheep, and crocodiles need their skin for survival. But even with animal materials that will regrow, such as wool or cashmere, animals get harmed in the process. Shearers are usually paid by volume rather than by hour which often leaves them disregarding animals’ wellbeing in a quest for maximum profit.

Aside from animal welfare, it’s worth bearing in mind the environmental perspective. Requiring the most water, food and land, cattle emit the most greenhouse gases in animal agriculture. Additionally, they significantly contribute to deforestation, leaving leather as one of the most environmentally damaging materials. The process of leather tanning that stabilizes animal hides is one of the most polluting steps in fashion’s supply chain since it works with large amounts of water and typically involves hazardous (some carcinogenic) chemicals which later get discarded into groundwater.

So far, vegan fashion seems to win over animal materials in ethical and environmental aspects. But when making the decision on which vegan materials are truly environmentally friendly, it is crucial that we examine the resources involved in the production process. Vegan leather can be made from natural resources including pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and mushrooms. Some of these alternatives are even biodegradable. But of course, it’s not always that easy.

The downsides of vegan alternatives

When asked about the sustainability of vegan fashion, Ashley Gill, an expert from materials non-profit Textile Change, tells British Vogue: “Vegan does not equate to any direct sustainability outcome. It can in some instances, of course, have environmental benefits but that’s not the aim of the vegan definition”.

Vegan alternatives to leather, wool, or fur are often manufactured using two different plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are both based on fossil fuels and will take up to a couple of hundred years to decompose. Particularly when looking at leather, PU- or PVC-based materials massively harm the environment throughout their entire lifespan: Creating PU or PVC requires fossil fuels, production involves tanning, the material is not as durable as real leather and it will shed microfibres during wear, laundering, and its long process of decomposing.

While the carbon footprint of natural vegan leathers made from pineapple, cork, or mushrooms, is much lower, it’s worth considering that most vegan leathers go through the same hazardous and polluting process of tanning. To be fair, there are also more eco-friendly alternatives such as vegetable tanning, but this procedure merely makes up a small niche in the industry. It is worth mentioning that certain artificially produced materials, such as mushroom or apple leather, require synthetic compounds to enhance their strength and durability, rendering them non-biodegradable.

What should you consider before purchasing?

As often in matters of sustainability, rather than a „one fits all“ solution we have to ask ourselves which choices align with our values. While some prioritize animal welfare, others will try to minimize their carbon footprint. With vegan materials, it will probably come down to a settlement between avoiding plastic, respecting animal welfare, and maximising durability.

If the ethical and environmental aspects as well as durability are important to you, a second-hand, upcycled or recycled leather product may be the right choice. By purchasing second-hand leather items, you are essentially recycling a material that already exists and preventing it from ending up in a landfill. They can last a long time if properly cared for. However, some people may be uncomfortable with the idea of wearing an animal product or contributing to the leather industry in any way, even if it is through a second-hand item. If you opt for a vegan leather alternative, try to find one that is made from natural ingredients like cork or pineapple leaves and is biodegradable. Ultimately, the decision is up to you and depends on your personal values and priorities.

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