Is vegan fashion always sustainable?

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

Every vegan has their story and we’ve all had a different journey getting here. Like a lot of you, I transitioned overnight after reading an article on the dairy industry, but I’ll be the first to admit that it took me far longer to make the connection between fashion and animal suffering. As a fashion stylist who has worked in both the fast and slow fashion space, I’ve seen it all. I used to work for a luxury fashion house and as part of the training we were made to watch videos on leather production. At the time I was very young and I didn’t actually process where the leather came from, nor did I question it. Now, I ask myself, if I would have seen a video on the dairy or meat industry, would I have accepted it quite as easily? Most people assume leather is a by-product of the meat industry and turn a blind eye, but if you take the rising trend of ostrich leather as an example, the skins are actually the most valuable and it’s the meat that’s the by-product. Calf leather is classed as the softest and most luxurious leather but originates from the skin of new-born calves that are delivered prematurely for the sole purpose of leather accessories. It’s strange that societally we are now demanding products that are sustainable, organic and free-range but have no issue with buying leather that is both cruel and originating from countries where there are few firm regulations for animal welfare.

The harm of the livestock industry

Other than the obvious ethical conundrum there are further issues with buying leather. The sheer environmental impact is astronomical. Livestock and their by-products account for 13.5% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. It also plays a major role in the depletion of Amazon rainforests, which are being cleared at a rate of one hectare every eighteen seconds. The process of tanning leather is also incredibly toxic, and most is chrome tanned which results in toxic and carcinogenic chemicals being pumped back into our waterways. This in turn affects our wildlife and oceans and works its way back into the food chain. It’s an incredibly damaging and dangerous cycle.

Plastic is not so fantastic

To be completely honest, the issue I am experiencing at the moment is that in my quest to be as green as possible, I am finding that not all vegan fashion is particularly sustainable. Some alternatives are quite often toxic and synthetic. Take polyester for example, which is well known to release hundreds of thousands of microplastics into our waterways through laundering a single item, which inadvertently affects our environment and wildlife. There are even records of plastic ingestion being prevalent in polar bears – so take a moment to imagine the effects on our aquatic life! Another example is PVC which is often used in place of leather. PVC is a material derived from oil, and because of this it produces a highly toxic cocktail of chemicals such as dioxins, phthalates and lead which amongst a plethora of negative health effects, can increase our cancer risks immensely. Since these synthetic materials don’t biodegrade like natural fabrics, they release phthalates which enter our atmosphere and impact our collective health and planet. Many vegan brands, such as Beyond Skin and Bourgeois Boheme, are therefore PVC-free.

Recycled materials: part of the solution

Recycled plastic is often sold as a solution and although this isn’t the most sustainable option, I am conscious that we can’t keep making new materials either. Recycled materials do have their part to play in the future of our industry. Compassionate vegan brands are worth investing in and one of my favourites is Matt and Nat, which I find to produce classic items that wear incredibly well. I do want to point out that vegan companies don’t always use fabrics like PVC plastics, and biodiversity in the fashion industry is perhaps the most exciting breakthrough. I am a massive fan of Stella McCartney, who is pioneering this research and developing some exciting new compositions including leather-look fabrics and silks derived from plant-based fibres. The Centre of Sustainable Fashion is also one of the leaders in the industry, creating curriculum for future graduates to enable a new set of values and practices for a more sustainable industry moving forward.

Natural is the way forward

Choosing natural fabrics where possible, as well as shopping as little as we can, is the most sustainable option. Natural materials are biodegradable and have a far lesser impact on our planet. Lots of indie brands are now looking into dying natural fibres with plant- based dyes, like avocado pips. Materials such as Pinatex, Vegea, apple leather and good old-fashioned cork are also natural, recyclable and real pioneers in sustainable vegan fashion. And there is a lot of funding being poured into developing safer, cleaner and more sustainable closed-loop production processes. I am also an advocate for thrifting and will often pull clothing for shoots from charity shops. As long as you’re buying natural fabrics like cotton, then you know the item will eventually biodegrade, and are giving a pre-loved item another chance at a longer shelf life. Shopping in this way makes a really big impact as we aren’t buying into new products but utilizing existing resources which plays a part in reducing clothing ending up in landfills. At the end of the day it’s about doing our best. Reading labels, requesting natural fabrics and not being afraid to ask questions. It enables us to be a part of a community of people all wanting the same – a greener and more sustainable future. We must harness any knowledge we have and ensure that we make better choices next time. I’m optimistic that if enough of us make changes, then together we can make an impact, however small. As Stella McCartney famously once said, “Everyone can do simple things to make a difference, and every little bit really does count.” I am a great believer that this lifestyle is a journey and that every change we make will benefit our collective future.

As seen in Vilda Magazine.