A tale as old as time
Archaeological evidence dates humankind’s relationship with animal products and hide as far back as the Paleolithic period (3.3 million years ago). This relationship was born from a necessity for survival where hominins depended on fur to keep them warm in the forms of early clothing and shelter. Animal skins were a by-product of hunting for food, and the difficulty of catching an animal, justified the use of hide to early civilisations, of leaving no part of it left unused. This ‘essential’ relationship was nurtured, developed and justified for the next 2.99 million years.
The problem is, the nature of this relationship changed. Animals became more than just competitors in the environment, and we got so good at harvesting their products that it became a sport, an industry for fashion, and non-essential clothing. Various leathers and wools lined almost everything you could get your hands on until very recently.
The paradigm shift
Despite pressure groups calling for the reduction of animal products from fashion products since the 1970s, businesses over the last 10 years have become more accepting of incorporating the public’s views into their practices. You may ask yourself, have businesses had an ethical awakening? Is it that a new generation of employees and higher-ups bring forward these ideas, and therefore our beliefs as consumers are represented better, in an era less riddled by nepotism? Or is it that businesses just figured out how to be reactive to demand without affecting their bottom line?
It may however be the latter, as animal rights activists will know all too well that incremental change is better than none at all. And you might find yourself asking; is it a victory if it’s given to us for the wrong reasons? I’ve always felt it’s most important to apply critical thought when things look rosy. It would also be forgivable to think this, given the change we’ve gone through in such a short time. After all, the fur market has massively shrunk in the last decade, and vegan leather is finally starting to rival some of the leather products that in the past were so normal to us.
Doc’s and their remedy
For anyone invested in such changes to the fashion industry, the aforementioned paradigm shift represents an opportunity for us to take stock, and look at what‘s changed, what we’d like to be changed moving forward, and what’s important to consider as we storm down this self-proclaimed ‘righteous’ path.
So what can we learn from what's changed these last few years? First of all, that social media is a powerful weapon in making your voice heard as a consumer, whether in support or opposition to a fashion product. A great example is the Doc Martens vegan boot collection, and the success that it has garnered since its launch in the mid-2010s. Aspiring ethical consumers resulted in a 279% sale increase between 2017 and 2019 in their vegan collection. Doc’s success came as a result of pressure on social media to design a line of their iconic boots that fit with the increasingly growing vegan community and to modernise their products to fit today’s social movements.
Whilst many see this as a major win, Doc Martens also provide a useful example of how and where opinions within animal-focused ethical movements may differ. A consideration which may not appease everyone, especially the more strict vegans in the room, is that there are a great deal of culturally important and significant professions that are based in animal products and in this case: leather crafting. Although we have surpassed the need for leather products from a pre-consumerist point of view, it should be put forward that such industries carry stories from hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of human history, and is a part of many of our identities in some way.
So where do we go now?
This is where the concept of sustainability becomes relevant. Whilst we save the lives of many animals by downscaling this industry, what happens if we eradicate it altogether? Would we lose a degree of biodiversity? After all, if animals are mainly kept for animal produce, businesses, and farmers could look elsewhere and will move away from livestock and possibly green space. This may affect insect, flora and fauna populations, but ultimately it is an unknown.
So where do we compromise? Free-ranging and ‘ethical’ breeding has become more popular in recent years, despite the potentially negative impact of this in terms of carbon footprint. So do we opt to continue the industry, albeit at a smaller scale, give animals a good life and then use their products after? This would allow us to sustain traditions such as Spanish and Italian leather crafting, which would be considered an art form by all if not for the material, and has massively contributed to fashion culture and the culture of many towns and cities from their respective homelands.
Or do we recycle our previous animal materials and restore them, and combine that with non-animal materials, and move on from what we might consider to be a toxic history with animals? This is certainly the angle that's argued most often, and you can see the sense in all of the above. Ultimately these types of questions require cooperation and community within the fashion world if we want any clarity on a future direction to take.
How fashion deals with these social issues is completely down to us as consumers. We do have the power to decide, but whatever we do decide; the fashion world will be our vehicle for sharing this message with others, due to the universal language of such a visual art form, and the power that brands and product endorsements have to sway consumer’s opinions.