I write about why I avoid leather, wool, suede, cashmere and all other animal derived textiles at “What Vegans Don’t Wear”. Be sure to check it out if you haven’t already. This post is about why I have unwavering commitment to vegan friendly fashion, beyond what goes on in factories and slaughterhouses.
We all didn’t know any better once
In my former life of ignorant bliss, my wardrobe included some wool, a little silk and of course, leather. I always knew fur was cruel, of course, but I figured everything else was mostly OK. After all, having genuine leather shoes and accessories was a “good thing”, and it was a “really good thing” to have say, a 100% silk blouse or for men, silk ties.
When I became a vegetarian I wised up a little, and stopped buying anything animal-derived. I continued to wear out the items I still had, though felt increasingly uncomfortable doing so. As I moved towards becoming a vegan I realised the extent of what happened to animals (again, not going into that here). Suffice to say, my heart and conscience couldn’t allow me to continue using those things. I donated what I could to charity and threw away the old and worn stuff.
We’re so lucky to have near-unlimited information at our fingertips these days. Being trained to look up anything and everything instantly on our phones means that we have no excuse for being ill-informed. Knowing as much as we can helps inform our values in life and therefore make better purchasing decisions.
Whilst we can’t be ‘perfect’ vegans, we still should try our best
We know that no-one can avoid non-vegan products entirely. Our phones and computers’ LCD screens likely contain cholesterol. Steel and rubber production use animal fats, but we depend on bikes, cars and trains. Essential medicines mightn’t have an animal-free version. Even in only buying vegan food at a supermarket, you’re still supporting a company that profits from animal slaughter through selling meat, fish and dairy. Our new plastic banknotes contain tallow! These are unavoidable compromises vegans have to make to live in the modern world.
However, there are plenty of situations which offer real choices. Where there are vegan options, there’s no reason to take the harmful path. So, when it comes to something as frivolous as clothes, shoes and accessories, in my mind there is no compromise to make.
I think we can all agree that choosing to wear leather trousers or accessorize your bag with a raccoon fur pompom is not the same as depending on a computer for work, travelling by train or using cash in everyday life. In those situations, there’s no viable alternative.
Being a vegan is not about being 100% perfect, though we try! It is about doing everything that is possible to limit animal cruelty and exploitation in our lives.
We dress for fun as well as function. The days of living butt-naked out in the wild and genuinely needing an animal hide to survive a winter are centuries behind us. With central heated homes and a mind-boggling array of synthetic and natural fabrics and materials available to us, it’s simply unnecessary to still buy leather, wool and the rest.
The way I see it, if eliminating animal products from your wardrobe as well as from your plate makes your life 80-95% “totally vegan”, then go for it and be proud!
Will buying vegan clothes make a difference to the animals?
Putting the debate about the effects rampant consumerism aside, where we shop and what we buy matters a great deal.
Lower demand = lower supply and change
Any reduction in the sales of animal-derived products sends a message to companies and manufacturers to give us other things.
If we stop buying wool and made a big deal about it, trust me, within a year, there would be “wool-free” signs up all over the place. How does this impact the animals?
Well, in simple terms this decreased desire for wool products in turn means lower orders for wool. Sheep farmers will feel the effect and over time, they will buy and breed fewer and fewer sheep. Lambs will stop being born deliberately for shearing before being slaughtered.
Once it stops making economic sense, a lot of the well-established practices will end. For instance, dairy farms are already closing as milk prices drop and dairy alternatives take more of the market. (Don’t forget when dairy cows stop producing milk, they’ll be killed and there’s your leather).
There are also plenty of stories of farmers having a huge change of heart for kind as well as economic reasons.
We really can save future generations of animals from being born to die by choosing vegan products not only in the chilled aisles but also from clothes racks.
Increased vegan population = increased corporate concern
The continuing growth of veganism as a food trend and lifestyle choice has been accompanied by a rise in vegan brands and products. Just since last year, there has been a huge 75% increase on products described as vegan in the UK alone!
Within 5 years, Veganuary had an increase from just 3,300 people sign up in 2014 to over 250,000 people in 2019. That is amazing! Last year, a study found that there are over 3.5m vegans in the UK alone.
Those are figures and trends that businesses in the ‘fast moving consumer goods’ (FMCG) industry take notice of. FMCG includes food and drinks (processed foods; dry ingredients like sugar, beans, coffee, tea; pre-prepared meals; sweets; alcohol; soft drinks etc.), cosmetics, toiletries, personal care and more.
“It’s about the opportunity to kinda convert those 18- to 34-year-olds into brands and products and services they’ll use for the rest of their lives.”
global management-consultancy firm Bain & Company recently reported that ‘animal welfare’ stands out as the key criteria for consumers under 35.
So if these young folk are leaning in any significant way towards veganism with a heightened awareness of animal welfare, you can bet they will be advising their clients to jump on board the ethical train if they want to retain mass appeal, and profits, in decades to come.
Increased vegan spend + environmental concerns = increased innovation
The FashionUnited piece also reported that:
Business consulting firm Grand View Research predicts that the global faux-leather market will be worth 58 billion pounds (74 billion US dollars) by 2025
This is very exciting. As of writing, the global footwear market is worth £279.9 billion, and just over 50% of that is from leather footwear. If faux-leather is going to be worth £58 billion, there is every reason to assume that a sizable chunk of the leather footwear market will be replaced with vegan alternatives.
Now, obviously whilst that’s a good thing for animals, that isn’t necessarily any better for the environment.
Leather production is far more damaging than people realise. Briefly, the ‘natural’ hide is dyed and tanned with all sorts of toxic chemicals. These chemicals leach into nearby rivers, polluting the local environment and affecting the health of local people.
Faux-leather is usually a form of plastic (PVC or PU) which involves a dangerous process and also releases toxic chemicals into the environment.
In the wave of concern for the planet amidst climate change, we can’t continue to put fashion ahead of the environment or people either. As a result, there has been investment in developing better animal-free alternatives.
Sometimes I have to wonder, how do people come up with this stuff?!
Happily, there are some awesome new textiles around! Some of the vegan fabrics made from unusual eco-friendly sources include:
- Woven recycled paper
- Woven fibres made from hana (agave) leaves
- Vegan suede made from eucalyptus fibres and recycled polyester
- Alter-Nappa: leather substitute made from polyester and water based and solvent-free polyurethane; on a recycled polyester backing, coated with over 50% vegetable oil
- Appleskin: vegan leather made from 50% apple and 50% PU on a cotton backing
- Teak leather: made from teak leaves and bark
- Cork leather: 100% cork and chemical-free
- ‘Future-Leather’: a biodegradable PU-based microfibre
- Mylo: mycelium (mushroom root structure) cells are grown in beds of corn stalks to create a leather substitute
- MuSkin: 100% vegetable, fungus-based leather alternative
- Wineleather: made from grape marc (fibres contained in grape skins and seeds) which is a by-product of the wine industry
- Nettle denim: 24% nettle, 61% recycled cotton, 15% modal (a wood extracted cellulose fibre)
- Nettle yarn: 60% nettle and 40% modal (a wood extracted cellulose fibre)
- Wood wool: literally a form of rayon made from wood pulp
- ‘Future-Wool’: a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester
- Plumtech®: recycled polyester to replace down feather
- Microsilk®: bio-engineered yeast based animal-free silk
There are some contenders for the most intriguing source material for sure! However, I’m particularly excited about Piñatex® , a “natural, sustainable leather alternative” made from pineapple leaf ﬁbre, which is a by-product of the pineapple industry! Now that is a “by-product” that I can get behind! (Check out these pictures of the manufacturing process, it’s so cool).
I am looking forward to seeing more products made from these new materials coming out over the coming years.
Why what you wear matters for you
In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Polonius declared: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man”. The phrase actually goes back even further than the Elizabethan era to ancient Greek and Latin proverbs. The latter was shared in 1500 by Erasmus: “vestis virum facit”. “Clothes makes the man.”
It still holds true, and today with quite a lot more choice than togas and stiff, white neck ruffles, we reflect so much about ourselves through how we dress.
Now, I’m not saying you have to be so obvious as to walk around in a t-shirt with “I’M A VEGAN BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE KILLING ANIMALS SO WHY DO YOU SUPPORT IT, BACON EATERS???” on it. That might be a bit much… Yeah, just a tad..!
But dressing yourself is a form of personal branding. Just like being a female, mixed-race, married, degree-educated, web developer that loves US late night comedy and is obsessed with The Legend of Zelda, being vegan is also part of my personal brand. It’s a permanent part of who I am. It would make as much sense for me to wear a Taylor Swift t-shirt or buy a £700 bag, as it would to wear a wool-blend skirt. They just don’t reflect me, my preferences or my values.
So I invite you to consider, what are you telling the world about you and what you believe by how you choose to dress?
Your peers see you…
If you saw a woman wearing a full fur coat in the Home Counties, what would you think of them? Honestly?! You’re unlikely to assume that she’s a pleasant and compassionate human being. But also, it reminds every single person that sees her that fur garments are out there, and a few may find it desirable without knowing the reality behind it.
When I first became a vegetarian, my Mum was amused. She asked me: “Oh God, are you going to be one of those, wearing hemp and Jesus sandals?”. It’s funny because within a few years she became a vegan herself. But as vegans, we kinda do have a responsibility to dress well (but whilst still reflecting ourselves) and show everyone that it is easy to make better choices for animals.
All the while I can shop at the same places as my friends and wear the same brands I used to, I am proving that veganism is accessible. Whereas, if I can only buy everything online, and my style morphs into weird, ill-fitted, enormously expensive items, then I have missed an opportunity to encourage others to question their choices. Like it or not, we do take notice of what those around us do.
For example, someone compliments your shoes. You smile and thank them. You might add where you got them from or how glad you were they were vegan-friendly. They might ask why shoes aren’t vegan, and you can explain, briefly, how you see the issue and why you make the choices that you do.
It doesn’t take much, but it can have a little, or even a ripple, effect.
Doing our best in a less than perfect world…
In an ideal world we would know what clothes are vegan friendly from a simple label. However, we have to use our best judgement and make choices with the best of intentions. After all, dyes, glues, paints and embellishments could be hiding an animal derivative.
We just don’t always know, and more often than not, neither will customer services.
Alongside that disclaimer, I believe that we can absolutely keep our wardrobes vegan to the best of our ability, and I’m going to show you how in my posts in this style and self-care section.
Can we ever have truly guilt-free clothing?
After all, it isn’t just animals that need to be thought of. What do we do with the ethical concerns around sweatshop labour and worker abuses, and the environmental impact of fast fashion?
It’s not easy to choose companies that meet our ethical standards in all ways, and that we can afford. It’s easy to find vegan items in any high street store, but should we be shopping there in the first place? What happens to the impoverished people working for the brands we choose to boycott?
The fact is that without an unlimited budget and deep levels of information, we can never make perfect decisions.
We can only try our best to do what makes sense for our lives and our wallets as well as the animals and people involved to the best of our knowledge. Thankfully we can use our voices to demand better from the companies we shop with. We can keep the pressure on them to improve working wages and standards throughout the supply chain.
So how can I still enjoy buying new things whilst loving animals all the same?
Let’s put aside the questions of whether you should shop at this store or that brand because that I am not here to tell you what to do. I’m not The Oracle from the Matrix, and don’t have all the answers. I just try to do my best with the information I have and the means available to me.
Ultimately it boils down to asking yourself a few simple questions when considering a new clothing purchase:
- Do I really need it?
- Will this piece last a long time: I’m sure it won’t shrink/fade/break within a year?
- Is it free of leather, suede, wool, silk, cashmere, angora, fur etc?
- If glue has been used, is it animal-free?
- Am I satisfied with the company’s ethical policy and production methods?
If the answer to all questions is “yes”, then feel free to enjoy your purchase.
If 1-4 answered “no”, then you really shouldn’t buy it.
However, if the answer is “maybe” or “no” to number 5, then see if you can research or request information from the company to either reassure you, or let them know that this matters to their consumers.
We always have a choice. Sometimes our choices will be better than others, but all we can do is to try our best whilst living in this crazy, modern world!
I sincerely believe and trust that the rise in veganism and people’s eyes being opened to mass production methods will encourage companies to treat their people and the environment better. Of course, whilst leaving animals alone.
I hope that world comes sooner rather than later.
But whilst we wait, there is no reason to continue in the exploitation, harming and torture of animals for our clothes, shoes or accessories. I hope you agree.