It's definitely the season for cosying up in warm knitwear. But with comforting knits being such a wardrobe staple, how much damage are the materials involved in them doing to our planet and animals? And what's the kinder and more sustainable vegan knitwear alternative?
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
What's wrong with wool?
Wool is seen by many as a “natural” and “gentle” material. Most people who wrap up in a wool sweater, coat or scarf every autumn have very little idea of how sheep suffer for wool, but over 100 undercover investigations into 13 sheep-shearing facilities on four continents have shown that cruelty is systemic and pervasive in the trade. The investigative footage, be it from Australia or Argentina, the US or the UK, all show workers hitting, kicking and stomping on sheep – some of the footage was so violent that shearers have actually pled guilty to cruelty to animals in both Scotland and Australia.
Shearers in the wool industry are often underpaid, and are paid by the volume of wool they produce and not the hours they work, meaning that it's in their best interest to work as quickly as possible. When sheep are cut in the process, they are often left bleeding, or sewn up with a needle and thread. And of course, all sheep who are used for wool are sent to slaughter when no longer deemed useful for wool production.
The same cruelty issues echo through every knitwear material made from animals: from the undercover investigation footage showing rabbits at angora farms in China, whose fur was torn out of their bodies as they screamed in agony to the mohair goats dragged by their legs and thrown across shearing floors in South Africa and, most recently, the alpacas cut open and left bleeding at “small-scale family farms” in Peru, it's clear that no use of animals in clothing can ever be made without compromising that animal's right to a life without exploitation, pain and terror. Which is leading many a conscious consumer to look for wool alternatives, and instead choose sustainable, ethical knitwear.
What about sustainability?
What the fashion industry is even less familiar with is the impact that these materials can have on the environment. Since the beginning of the conversation around sustainability in fashion, wool (and materials similar to it, such as cashmere and alpaca) has been celebrated by the eco-fashion community as “natural” and “green”. But the truth is much more complicated than a simple assumption that anything non-synthetic is automatically eco-friendly.
Sheep, much like cows, emit large quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with many times the global warming potential of CO2. Australia and New Zealand are the world's top wool producers, and the sheep present in those countries are among the top contributors to the territories' greenhouse-gas emissions. Wool production also contributes to desertification, deforestation, and topsoil loss.
As for cashmere, its impact on ecosystems can be downright devastating. 65% of the grasslands in Mongolia – a major cashmere producer – are degraded, and an astonishing 90% of the country is in danger of desertification. Cashmere goats, who are bred to meet the demand for cashmere fuelled by “luxury” fashion, consume 10% of their body weight in food every day – and when they do so, they eat the entire plant, including the roots. This prevents the plant from regrowing, meaning that the cashmere industry contributes to soil degradation and desertification. As it turns out, the production of this “natural” fibre causes lasting damage to the planet.
What are my ethical & sustainable knitwear options?
If wearing wool – or other animal-derived knits – is not a good option for those who care about ethics and suatainability, what other wool alternatives are there? How can we choose the best vegan knitwear? An ethically minded fashionista would know better than turn to virgin polyester, viscose or acrylic for ethical knitwear – these non-biodegradable fibres are made with cocktails of toxic chemicals, and some of them also shed microplastics into waterways when washed, which harms and kills marine life and damages marine ecosystems.
The good news is, there are plenty of sustainable knitwear options that mean dressing naturally – yes, without any synthetics or plastic – while staying away from wool that belongs to animals. For starters, vegan knitwear can simply be made from cotton. The organic variety is hands-down the best choice (this is one of those cases when organic actually makes a difference) as it is grown without toxic pesticides and produces way fewer CO2 emissions. Hemp is also a great choice for ethical knitwear: as it doesn't require pesticides or or herbicides, it is perfect for organic farming. It is also the least water-intensive material of all natural fibres.
Up-and-coming vegan knitwear fabrics that may replace animal-derived fibres in fashion include soybean cashmere – is soy the most versatile thing or what? This material drapes like silk, but offers the warmth of cashmere, minus the deforestation. Tencel – or Lyocell as it's also called – is another highly sustainable knitwear option. Made from wood pulp cellulose, this material is created with a closed-loop technology, meaning that the water and chemicals used in the process are re-used, in order to minimise waste.
And of course, then there are synthetics – but not in the way you think. Recycled fibres have been around for a long time, especially within the realm of ethical fashion, but are now increasingly being used as replacements for wool, and can be considered a sustainable choice for ethical knitwear – especially when blended with organic cotton. Recycling and upcycling aren't completely free from environmental impact, but they are a good way to prolong the lifespan of existing synthetic materials, and offer a sustainable knitwear option that is free from the animal cruelty that is implicit in any fibre – knitwear or other – that comes from an animal.
When it comes to vegan knitwear, many exciting alternatives to animal-based materials are still being developed. But the first step to change lies in realising that using animals for clothing is wasteful, cruel and unethical. With that premise as a starting point, innovators of the future will harness the many plant-based materials that nature has to offer to provide warmth, comfort and style.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is the founder of the world's first digital vegan fashion magazine, Vilda Magazine and the host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel. She was selected as one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists and is a frequent public speaker on the topic of vegan fashion and material innovation. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, read our interview with her.
You can shop our new ethical & sustainable knitwear collection of vegan jumpers, vegan cardigans and vegan knitted dresses here.
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Cover image by L'Envers