CW: This article discusses topics of animal abuse which could be distressing to some readers.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, argued that non-human animals had no interests of their own, thus placing them below ourselves, and this hierarchy ideology has existed ever since. The rise of the industrial revolution sparked an epoch known as the Anthropocene (though still debated within the scientific community) where we (homo-sapiens) began to strongly influence the planet.
For instance, the release of high quantities of carbon emissions, which resulted in global impact on Earth's ecosystems. This mistreatment of our planet has allowed the use of animals within the fashion industry to continue by our own nature. However, activist groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have risen to raise awareness of animal ethics and welfare concerns within this industry.
"We are all interconnected, people, animals, our environment. When nature suffers, we suffer and when nature flourishes, we all flourish." - Dr. Jane Goodall
The tanning process used to produce leather is an excellent way to view the interconnected nature of ourselves, animals, and our environment. You may have heard of chrome tanning – the most common tanning type which makes up the majority of the industry. The process utilises chromium sulphate as an efficient tanning agent but one which poses risks to both humans and non-human animals.
Workers, who are often outsourced cheap labour in countries such as India, become exposed to hexavalent chromium which increases the risk of getting cancers and damaging the respiratory tract. According to research, only 20% of the raw hide is used to produce leather, resulting in mass waste generation and environmental pollution. Consequently, eutrophication can occur that not only suffocates animals but also leads to hypoxic (dead) zones in our rivers and oceans where marine wildlife cannot survive.
It is therefore no surprise that fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry. From an anthropocentric perspective, one could argue that this is actually an ethical approach as the definition suggests that we can exploit both animals and the environment for our own benefit. Obviously, this is far from humane due to the animal welfare concerns that this presents. You only have to access PETA’s website to read the harrowing and quite frankly, gruesome reality.
“At Slaughterhouses, animals routinely have their throats cut and some are even skinned and dismembered while they are still conscious. [...] With every pair of leather shoes that you buy, you sentence an animal to a lifetime of suffering.” - PETA
Are fashion brands acting on this?
Research on animal welfare in the fashion industry is continuously increasing due to growth in social interest in ethical fashion. There has been a significant emergence of vegan fashion in recent years that satisfies the aspect of animal ethics and solves the environmental issue caused by neglecting composite materials so it is very much a win-win scenario. This is also known as the biocentric approach where we value all living things, relating back to Dr. Jane Goodall’s quote that we are all fundamentally interconnected.
One of the world’s largest fashion brands, Hermes, now incorporates pioneering leather alternatives into their manufacturing processes and this is in addition to their utilisation of recycled waste and upcycled clothing. Specifically, their Victoria bag is now produced using a mushroom-derived leather alternative and is manufactured in a lab with a lower carbon footprint than typical animal leather production. Therefore not only animal rights and welfare, but also the climate situation is improved one way or another. Though, animal welfare research is still far behind the research numbers of environmental and labour issues associated with this industry, so it is clear that more work still needs to be done.
Similar to Hermes, Nike recently introduced a new sneaker collection made from a vegan leather that is derived from pineapple leaf fibre, featuring vegan versions of Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 95, and Air Zoom. This is certainly going in the right direction but it is equally important to criticise where pineapple leaves have been sourced from. Pineapple plantations are often unregulated and involve deforestation and invasion of protected areas to produce them in the first instance; could this be a sacrifice of our environment to allow vegan fashion to prosper? Costa Rica alone has witnessed an expansion of these plantations by more than 23 times over between 2004 and 2015 according to the Socio-Environmental Kiosk Programme.
How can you help?
The simplest thing to do is to refuse to buy products containing leather and boycott brands that continue to ignore the reality of animal mistreatment within this industry. However, it is not always this simple as many fashion brands still do not display this on the label to consumers.
One way to approach this is by contacting the company to ask whether they use traditional leather or if they are transitioning to vegan alternatives. Of course, the faff of contacting companies is not ideal, particularly when we are distracted by our own affairs. Alternatively, signing petitions through social media platforms and resharing is a great way to boost awareness of this issue. Word of mouth to others is equally effective and reaches people, who do not use social media, far and wide.
You can also report animal cruelty on the PETA website by clicking here for a broad range of circumstances including animal use on film and TV sets. In doing so, we will create positive change and transition to a more ethical, biocentric approach.