Worn hemp dresses and worn cork shoes were replaced by soft over-the-knee boots, skinny silk mini dresses and ice cream-colored crossbody bags. Vegan fashion has finally found great success thanks to a new generation determined to remove meat from their diets and wardrobes, and the fashion industry has responded with a series of desirable, animal-free collections.
But look behind the curtain and it turns out that innovation sometimes causes more problems than it solves.
Vegan leather is now ubiquitous and found on most mid-range British labels alongside brands like Marks & Spencer and Zara.
The fashion industry is understandably keen to promote it as an exciting new alternative – partly because leather goods bring in a lot of money and also because selling it is an easy way to show off your ethical credentials.
But the truth is that while the methane produced by cows means real leather isn’t doing much good for the planet, the crude oil used to replace it is probably much worse.
“This is a real hot potato,” says Suzanne Lee, founder of biotech company Biofabricate. “Especially in fashion, we’re always looking for a shorthand, and vegan leather is now being touted as an eco-friendly alternative to animal skin, but unfortunately many companies aren’t transparent about what that means.”
lack of regulation
For all the new innovations, not much has changed since the plitter days – most vegan leather today is made from either polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both of which are incredibly polluting. Even brands that say they use plant-derived ingredients make as little as 25 percent of their products, for example, from cactus or pineapple skin, and the rest from plastic. The fashion industry continues to be highly unregulated, so there is little backlash in this regard.
“This is 100 percent greenwashing,” Lee says. “It pisses me off a lot, but we see it every day. There are brands that come up with this new vegan leather that is offered to us often, and we have to tell them that it’s basically plastic. I’ll be brave enough to say that vegan fashion is the main area where greenwashing is a concern.”
Unfortunately, these companies market their products to consumers who – in general – are doing their best to make a positive impact. This is especially true in January, when vegan fashion searches are higher than at any other time of the year, thanks to the popularity of the plant-based nutrition startup “veganuary.”
“It’s a shame because so many kids get excited about the vegan diet and want to buy a vegan handbag and are horrified to learn that it’s mostly plastic,” Lee says.
shades of gray
The problem begins when people combine their eating habits with their clothing consumption. “We need to educate people to think of fashion in shades of gray rather than black and white,” Lee says. “Vegan cooking is simple – at least because the ingredients are listed. We don’t get it with the ingredients, so there are plenty of opportunities to hide what’s in the products.”
He cites several companies that claim to make cactus or apple skin accessories but – according to Lee – base very little of the material on real plant products, instead relying overwhelmingly on plastic, which is far more polluting.
However, these ‘alternative leathers’ are also difficult to recycle as they are only partially plastic, processed and contain many different elements. This means that a lot of discarded vegan leather will likely end up in the landfill.
For some people, this is still better than contributing to the slaughter of animals or the creation of materials made from raw and environmentally damaging fossil fuels – but the lack of transparency means that few consumers make this choice consciously.
One company trying to fight some of the disinformation out there is Pangaia. Based in Los Angeles, this innovative brand has advanced scientifically and has become one of the pioneers of vegan fashion. It also has a policy of giving customers as much detail as possible.
“Right now, about 60 percent of all fashion products have some synthetic, and synthetic is pure fossil fuels,” says Pangaia COO Amanda Parkes. “We don’t want to add to that and we want to make sure that all virgin content is ethical and that no animals die – but we tell the customer as much as we can because we know solutions aren’t always perfect.”
“Nothing is simple,” Lee agrees. “The dairy industry is very polluting but the truth is that most of the leather that fashion uses comes from the hides of cows that will always be slaughtered for food – if you want to make a difference, convincing someone to eat less meat will do more than persuading them to buy a plastic handbag. do it.”
This means – for now – ensuring that leather is not like fur. Fur was the first animal product to attract the world’s attention thanks to Peta’s headline-making efforts, and is now justifiably frowned upon in almost all circles. But faux fur, which is typically made from polluting synthetics, isn’t really much better.
While there are a few companies, like Stella McCartney’s recently developed KOBA Fur-Free Fur, that make faux fur from green-friendly plant products like Maison Atia and House of Fluff, none of them are particularly affordable.
“Cheap faux fur is essentially plastic,” Lee says. “It’s a fossil polymer from crude oil that’s poisonous and nasty and goes straight to the landfill. No one who cares about the planet should ever buy it.”
When it comes to wool, vegan options are also a bad idea because real wool is one of the greenest materials you can buy. Even Stella McCartney, who never uses leather or silk in her designs, will use responsibly sourced wool.
“Wool isn’t just good, it’s actively great because when it’s worn, you can safely compost it—and that’s important in my book,” says Dana Thomas, acclaimed author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothing.
King Charles and publisher Nicholas Coleridge even ran a campaign to get people to wear more wool in an effort to rid the planet of its plastic derivatives. “It’s frankly insane that people wear synthetic sweaters instead of wool,” says Coleridge.
“As well as being much greener than its alternative, the energy crisis means it’s more important than ever since wool keeps you twice as warm. This was widely understood in medieval Britain, but has been somewhat forgotten in recent years.
Tamara Cincik, the founder of the Fashion Roundtable consulting firm, has been vegan for 20 years and has been actively campaigning for people to wear more wool. “One of the most important things you can do for the planet is to buy clothes made near your home,” she says. “I know I’m doing something good when I buy items made from English wool.”
Then there’s silk, which has received far less airtime despite reports of animal rights groups about worms being boiled alive in their cocoons. There are a few planet-friendly plant-based materials that mimic the feel and drape of silk, such as Bolt Threads, but these continue to be available almost exclusively in the luxury realm.
“Honestly, because silk is such a small percentage of the overall market, stopping it will only put some people out of work—most of them women—in low-income countries,” Lee says. “When you look at the amount of polyester and silk produced each day, I don’t think the latter is the right place to concentrate our efforts.”
Lee touched on the biggest problem here – the large number of garments produced by the industry every day. Unfortunately, because fashion exists to sell products, it is easier to tell people concerned about the planet to buy a pair of vegan boots than to tell the truth: buying nothing remains the most eco-friendly choice you can make.