Look inside your closet. There is a pretty good chance that at least one item you own is made from an animal-based textile. Perhaps you have a leather bag, jacket, or pair of shoes? Maybe a woolen sweater or scarf? How about a down-filled winter jacket with a bit of fur around the hood? Unbeknownst to us, the purchase of these luxurious products comes at a cost to our environment and often, the inhumane death of the animal.
The fashion industry, in all its glory and excess, is now considered to be the second most harmful industry to the environment. One element of this environmental impact comes from the farming and killing of animals for the various textiles they can provide for the fashion industry. Leather, wool, cash-mere, fur, down, and silk are all animal-based textiles, and the demand for them has grown significantly in recent decades. To meet this demand, those who provide us with these goods need more animals and cut costs, resulting in the mistreatment of the animals. The abhorrent conditions the animals are caged in, the unethical methods used for shearing or killing these animals, and the abusive behaviour of the handlers has been exposed in undercover investigations by animal rights groups, such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). This reality is starting to concern consumers, who are demanding change.
Enter a new generation of “vegan fashion”. These are alternatives to animal-based textiles such as leather, wool, silk, down, and fur. Some of the exciting alternatives coming to the market include faux fur which feels like real fur, but is made from synthetic fibres. Alternatives to leather include pleather which is often made from polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, or cow cells grown in culture in a laboratory. Wool is another textile being replaced by cotton, polyester fleece, or synthetic shearling, which still has the same heating properties of wool without coming from sheep.
Take a moment, though, to consider that most of these synthetic products also have their own environmental impact. Due to inefficient agricultural practices and processing techniques, 2,700 L of water is needed to make one cotton T-shirt. Furthermore, the synthetic fibres from clothes get released into our waterways through washing, and they contribute to 35% of the microplastics in the ocean. Finally, the chemical process needed to make rayon, the preferred alternative to silk, releases by-products that are toxic to the environment and human health.
Vegan does not always mean sustainable. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are companies which use organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo to make sustainable textiles with a low environmental impact. Also, textiles made of recycled polyester, nylon, rubber, and cork are sustainable alternatives to leather and other synthetic fibres. However, perhaps the solution here isn’t to eliminate animal-based textiles altogether; humanity has been using animal products for textiles for thousands of years due to their availability, warmth, and durability. In fact, genetic analyses of human body lice indicate that humans began wearing animal skins and furs around 170,000 years ago! And still today, many indigenous communities around the world are producing high quality animal-based textiles and rely on their sale to sustain their communities. Nevertheless, the awareness raised by groups like PETA has led to the formation of initiatives like the Responsible Down Standard or the Responsible Wool Standard, which allow the consumer to ascertain if the down in their jacket or woolen sweater has been sourced in a cruelty-free manner.
So the next time you’re in a store, look closely at the label and try to buy products made from either ethically-sourced animal textiles or organically grown materials, which are better for the environment.