The Environmental Impact of Animal Products in Fashion
The rise of vegan fashion
There has been an exponential growth of veganism in the United Kingdom throughout the last two decades, particularly in the last five. The last two years has seen a boom in animal-free fashion as a result of this growing market. Animal products have been used in the fashion industry for decades from skins, fur, wool, and feathers, to silk and carmine. Vegans in particular disagree with the use of animal products in the fashion industry since it treats the animal as a commodity. It often leads to over and selective breeding which results in animal health problems, confinement, and the corruption of ecosystems.
Comparatively, non-vegans argue for animal welfare, believing that animals can be used as a commodity if humane guidelines are followed. Nevertheless, common cruel practices such as mulesing that are legal in countries which we import the majority of our wool from, are conducted for the benefit of humans often to the animal's detriment. Many undercover investigations have also uncovered systematic animal cruelty of which millions die annually. Yet, fashion is one of the least regulated and unsustainable industries. Therefore, it is important that there is more awareness and regulation of company practices in terms of animal welfare and rights as well as sustainability.
Leather is often considered to be a by-product of the meat industry. However, it is important to consider the water and land used to raise the cows for the meat industry in the first place. For example, animal agriculture accounts for 29% of the world's freshwater footprint since it takes 1,890,000 litres of water to raise a single cow. Therefore, it takes 17,093 litres of water per kilogram of leather. The annual global impact of leather manufacture is 130 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 19% of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite some more sustainable leather brands using alternative tanning methods 90% of leather is tanned using a toxic chemical called chromium which is an environmental pollutant. Therefore, the best way for the fashion industry to become more eco-friendly is to eliminate the use of animal derivatives since animal derived materials are both inhumane and environmentally unstable.
Vegan fashion does not mean sustainable fashion
Just because an item is vegan does not mean that it is sustainable, although it is often more sustainable than animal products. Many people do not know that washing synthetic items such as polyester releases hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibers into waterways and contaminates marine life. In fact, many of the vegan alternatives such as vegan leather and fur available on the market today are often inaccurately thought to be more sustainable. However, they are often more expensive and contain toxic plastics such as PVC that fuel global warming. Therefore, the higher price of vegan leather makes animal-free fashion less accessible to the majority and although protects the animals lives it does not protect the environment which could ultimately have a detrimental effect on animal habitats..
The majority of consumers stated that they wanted to be more informed about corporate sustainability initiatives. Many also argued that they would be more likely to buy from a business if they attempt sustainable practices, but they would not pay more.
The lack of affordable vegan and sustainable alternatives in the fashion industry means that consumers are made to feel that that they are having to choose between animal ethics and sustainability. Consumers should be more informed by brands and have access to more choice when it comes to vegan and eco-friendly fashion especially considering the current climate crisis. Fashion is considered to be the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas, therefore the use of animal derived materials in fashion has accelerated climate change significantly.
The push for vegan and eco-friendly alternatives
An awareness of the need for more sustainable fashion alternatives has lead to innovation. Recently, Dr Hijosa has generated vegan material that is cheaper and more sustainable than genuine leather called Piñatex. Piñatex is a faux leather made from pineapple leaves that are otherwise wasted which generates less CO2 and uses fewer toxic materials to make compared to genuine leather. However, it is less durable than genuine leather meaning that it will have to be replaced more often, which raises questions of just how sustainable it is.
There have been many innovative vegan alternatives to silk, fur, down and leather. However, there was no alternative for wool until students at Columbia University created an alternative called Woocoa that is made from coconut fibres, and hemp which are treated with mushroom enzymes. Woocoa is soft, high quality and sustainable alternative however, it has not been developed into a product that's available on the market.
What can I do to make change in the fashion world?
The rise of ethical and sustainable consumers and the increasing demand of animal free fashion could create more accessible and sustainable vegan alternatives. An ethical consumer look researches the practices and materials of corporations before they buy from them. They look for a clean production system that doesn’t harm animals and produces good quality items that will stand the test of time for a fair price. They also ensure fair pay and conditions for employees.
The transparency of corporations in terms of their materials and sustainable practice may also be empowering for consumers and enable them to make more informed decisions about where they shop, while also encouraging corporations to be both more ethical and sustainable as a whole. As individual consumers we still have power over companies since our individual demand influences their supply and overall, their profit. Therefore, we can demand transparency, become better informed of the social and environmental consequences of our purchases and inevitably influence social change.