Vegan Fashion: How can one of the world’s most ethically compromised industries be made cruelty-free?

Vegan

As the popularity of veganism is rising and more people are picking up the cruelty-free, plant-based lifestyle, so does the demand for vegan fashion.
Whether you’re somebody who’s new to veganism looking for information on how to reflect this lifestyle on your wardrobe, or somebody looking to introduce more vegan pieces into their closet, we’ve created this guide to help you navigate the world of vegan fashion.

Vegan fabrics and materials

Vegan fashion: plant based cloth
There are two main categories most vegan fabrics fall into, as well as an in-between area which includes a few recent innovations combining the qualities of the two categories.

Natural plant-based fabrics

Plant-based fabrics – as the name suggests – come from plants. This includes cotton, linen, hemp and more. These materials are fully biodegradable and free of animal cruelty, which means they’re usually not only vegan but also sustainable. However, some unsustainable and unethical practices are associated with non-organic cotton production – which is why it’s always better to opt for organic when you can.

Synthetic fibres

Synthetic materials are vegan – but they’re not usually all that sustainable. They are, essentially plastic spun into yarn and weaved into fabric, which means they come from crude oil (which has many environmental and ethical issues associated with it. They also aren’t biodegradable and release microscopic plastic fibres into greywater whenever they are washed.
Polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane or polyamide are among the synthetic fabrics you’ll likely encounter most often. They can be significantly more sustainable if they’re made from recycled plastic instead – a better, more environmentally-friendly option.

The in-between

However, as we said before, there are some exceptions to this categorisation – such as rayon or lyocell. These fabrics come from natural sources, such as wood pulp, which is then synthesized to create a fabric that’s similar to polyester and other synthetics but without the release of microplastics or other drawbacks associated with the use of plastic.

Which fashion is not vegan?

A set of vegan leather for vegan fashion
There are several fabrics frequently used in fashion, which are not vegan – leather, fur, wool, silk, cashmere. Besides those, there are some unexpected materials you may not think of when buying fashion, that also aren’t vegan.
Firstly, some glues used in garment construction aren’t vegan, as they’re based on animal bones or connective tissues. You’ll most likely encounter these in shoes and accessories, which means that some products might be free from leather but still not vegan. Next, look out for the use of feathers. You’ll likely notice them if they’re used as accessories or decoratively – however, they can also make up stuffing of jackets or coats, where they are less noticeable.

Is vegan fashion always sustainable?

Chances are that if you’re vegan – or considering the lifestyle – you care about the environment. After all, environmental concerns are becoming an increasingly popular reason for going plant-based or vegan.

That is why it is important to discuss this question: is vegan fashion always sustainable?

While vegan fashion often comes from sustainable and ethical brands owned by people who care deeply about the impacts of their garments on the planet, wasteful and polluting fast fashion brands also increasingly try to enter the vegan fashion market. That is why it’s important to remember that while vegan fashion has many opportunities for being sustainable in all aspects, that is not always the case.

It is also difficult to compare vegan and non-vegan fashion in terms of sustainability because there are many different options of animal-product alternatives – some of which are incredibly sustainable while others can be heavily polluting. Let’s consider two of the materials which need to be swapped for vegan options most often – leather and wool.

Leather and its alternatives

Leather is the best example of the discrepancies among vegan alternatives in terms of their sustainability. Originally, vegan leather was only made from plastic – either PVC or PU (polyurethane). While both are made from a basis of crude oil, PU is significantly more environmentally friendly than PVC and possibly also more sustainable than animal-based leather.
Thankfully, plastic alternatives are not where it ends – more and more innovation is made in the domain of plant-based leathers. Materials such as pineapple leather, apple leather, corn leather or cactus leather are entering the market and, while they still come with a slightly higher price tag, they’re significantly more eco-friendly than PU, PVC and animal-based leather.

Wool and its alternatives

There are several environmental issues associated with wool production, although it does often get labelled as sustainable simply for the fact that it’s biodegradable. However, besides the cruel practices involved, sheep are animals that consume a lot of food, as well as other resources, and release methane (a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short term) into the atmosphere.

As with leather, wool alternatives can be made from synthetic or natural fibres – the benefits and drawbacks of which we’ve talked about before. It is, therefore, best to opt for cotton, hemp or linen as an alternative, or possibly recycled synthetics. It is also worth noting that old wool can often be recycled – and some vegans do not have a problem with wearing garments from recycled wool or buying woollen jumpers second-hand. Even though that’s not technically vegan, it is preventing these materials from ending up in landfills. Whichever way you look at it, both are important arguments to consider.

Vegan fashion is a wonderful way to make your consumption cruelty-free, even if you’re not living a fully vegan lifestyle. When it comes to sustainability, vegan fashion also has great potential to be much more eco-friendly – although this depends on where you buy your vegan clothing from.

Resources:
“Methane: The Other Important Greenhouse Gas.” Environmental Defense Fund. Web. 25 Nov. 2020.
Thomas, Leah. “Is Vegan Leather A More Sustainable Option? The Answer Is Complicated.” The Good Trade. The Good Trade, 06 Aug. 2019. Web. 25 Nov. 2020.
               
Author: Monica Chang
On my own ethical journey since 2010. Always happy to learn more!