Can Fashion be Sustainable if it’s Not Vegan?

Under the guise of sustainable fashion, we’re often told that animal materials are ‘natural’ or ‘eco-friendly’, sometimes even marketed as the green alternative to plastic or synthetic materials. But we rarely hear about the realities of what goes into making them, and the impact they have on the environment. We now speak openly about the carbon footprint of eating meat, or the threat fishing poses to our oceans, so why is there still this disconnect between animals and the clothes they’re used for?

By Sarah King: writer and campaigner for ethical & sustainable fashion

While there is a growing awareness of what goes into our clothes and the effect the fashion industry is having on the planet, there still seems to be an ongoing reluctance to leave animal materials behind in the move towards sustainability. The unwillingness to adapt comes largely from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with traditional materials and the hierarchy of textiles, often seeing new technology in fashion as a threat to their profit margins.

The definition of sustainability is “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”, therefore for an item of clothing to be truly sustainable it needs to be able to be continually produced without a negative impact on the environment. The continued use of animal materials is slowing down fashion’s journey towards sustainability, and a lot of the information we’re told about animal-based textiles is now outdated and misleading.

Let’s talk about leather

Leather is one of the most commonly used animal materials in the fashion industry, widely used in apparel, footwear and accessories. It has long been regarded as a symbol of luxury, status and craftsmanship.

Approximately 2.5 billion animals are skinned every year for fashion. (Source: circumfauna) The fashion industry would argue that since cows are killed for meat and dairy, it is more sustainable to use their hides to make leather and suede. However, the argument that using cowhides is more sustainable than throwing them away has been disproved. Circumfauna, an initiative from Collective Fashion Justice, calculated that the methane produced by rotting cowhides has a lower impact than the carbon footprint produced by turning a hide into leather.

To turn a cow’s hide into leather, a tannery must use dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, and coal-tar derivatives. Tannery effluent contains large amounts of pollutants, such as sulphides and acids, polluting the local water, land and people. (Source: PETA)

We’ve also been told that leather is a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry and would otherwise be wasted, but Meat and Livestock Australia defines skins to be made into leather as a ‘co-product’ of the meat industry, due to it being a source of great income. (Source: Good On You)

What about wool?

When we talk about animal materials wool is often defended the most ferociously, and is possibly even more widely used in the sustainable fashion industry than leather. Sold to us as an eco-friendly material, we are told that its best quality is that it is biodegradable. Not only does this selling point only work on the idea that it’s okay to throw away clothes to landfill, it also isn’t accurate. Wool goes through an extensive process before it is wearable. Pesticides and insecticides are often used on sheep to keep them free of parasites, and once sheep have been shorn, their wool is scoured and washed using chemicals, which can also contaminate nearby water sources. (Source: PETA)

The sheep that are raised for their wool have been genetically manipulated over hundreds of years to produce an unnatural amount of wool, making them dependant on humans for shearing. (Source: Woodstock Sanctuary) Now, industrially farmed sheep make up 25% of the global total for mammals, and are a major contributor of methane emissions, desertification and water pollution. Where large herds of sheep are grazing, ‘badlands’ can be formed, heavily eroded areas that then can’t be used for growing food. (Source: PETA)

Luxury, lasting-power and lies

The myth that ‘genuine’ leather and wool are luxury items and should be bought over synthetic alternatives has led the sustainable fashion industry to favour these materials. While some synthetic materials have their own issues, they are still considered less damaging to the environment than any material that requires an animal to be raised, killed and processed. (Source: Higg Materials Sustainability Index)

Luxury leather goods have one of the highest markups in the fashion industry, so brands that use the material have a vested interest in defending the continued production of animal hides. They do not want to lose profit, their priority is not the environment, and certainly not the animals. Furthermore, animal-based clothing can never be classed as ‘ethical fashion’ as it requires the slaughter of an animal, or potentially harming and causing severe distress to an animal, to produce it.

In our continued quest to achieve ‘sustainable fashion’, it is undeniable that we need to leave animal materials in the past. With developments in technology and innovations in plant-based textiles, there is no longer a need to use animals for fashion. Instead, it is a real necessity that we only use materials that support and nurture our environment. If we’re ever to realise our dream of a compassionate, sustainable fashion industry, we must remove animals from the equation entirely.

By Sarah King

About Sarah

Sarah is a freelance writer with a focus on vegan fashion, sustainability and ethically made clothes. She campaigns for change in the fashion industry through her blog and on her Instagram page.

Image by VILDNIS

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