Everyone’s heard of veganism, a movement that inspires a lot of activism and controversy. However, if you’re anything like me you’re probably not too familiar with how veganism links to fashion. Sure, fur makes sense—in order to get super rare or exotic furs, people hunt animals exclusively for their pelts, driving some species close to or to extinction. But what’s so bad about wool? I mean you’re just shearing the sheep, and other than the occasional haircut and being in captivity, the sheep more or less get to live their lives, right? And is leather a problem? If the animals are already killed for meat it makes sense to use the rest and not waste it. For the answers to these questions and more, read on.
So, what fabrics and materials are derived from animals? Well I’ve already mentioned fur, leather and wool. There’s also silk, cashmere, alpaca wool, angora, mohair, and feathers/down.
Leather is often thought of as a byproduct of the meat industry. However, the leather of cows is often more profitable than the meat, contributing to the demand for animal products and the subsequent killing of cows. Also, 85% of leather is tanned (the post processing that helps preserve the leather) using chromium, which is carcinogenic and harmful to tannery workers and the environment.
So what can you buy instead? If you still want a leather jacket, leather shoes, bag or wallet, what are your options? Luckily there are heaps of alternatives.
The most common faux leather and the one that’s probably been around the longest is plastic leather (pleather). Made from either PVC (polyvinylchloride) or PU (polyurethane), these materials can be just as bad for the planet, if not worse, than animal leather. They are produced from fossil fuels and their production uses lots of energy, is nonrenewable, and contributes to pollution. They also don’t break down when disposed of.
If you want to help animals and the planet there are heaps of super innovative, sustainable, natural leather alternatives. These include Pinatex, a leather made from pineapples of all things. Pinatex takes pineapple leaves, which are normally a waste product, extracts the fibres and meshes them together. The mesh is treated with dyes and waterproofing resin to make it look like real leather. Pinatex comes in a range of colours and is being used by labels including Hugo Boss and vegan brands such as Ahimsa Collective, Svala and Bourgeouis Boheme.
Apple leather is made from the fibres in apple peel. The apple peel used is a waste product from the juice industry. The apple fibres are ground up and mixed with polyurethane, so unfortunately the material isn’t 100% environmentally friendly. Apple leather has been used by brands including Mimco, which has a line of bags made from apple leather called the Gala Collection, and Veerah, an apple leather shoe label.
Mushroom leather and kombucha leather (kombucha being a type of fungus) are made from the root structures of fungi (the mycelium). This is harvested, compressed, dried and embossed to resemble real leather. It is strong, durable and waterproof just like real leather. A mushroom leather called Mylo has been developed by Bolt Threads, a company that also makes spider silk. Mylo is expected to be on the market early next year, sold by brands including Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon.
Cork is made from the bark of a particular type of tree grown mainly in Spain. It is an interesting-looking alternative to leather for bags, handbags and wallets as it is also waterproof and fairly durable.
Wool is produced by shearing sheep or alpacas. Producing wool doesn’t need to be a painful process for the animals, but with commercial farming and the inadequate oversight of workers, it often is. Sheep undergo procedures such as ear tagging, tail docking, castrations, sometimes forced impregnations and a process called mulesing where the skin at the buttocks is cut away, without anesthetic, in order to prevent flies and larvae digging into the flesh there. The process of shearing itself can also be quite rough. When workers are trying to be efficient and profitable—getting the most sheep shorn in the least amount of time—they are less careful, handling the sheep roughly. This results in cuts to the sheep, the sheep getting bruised or, according to reports of extreme cases, sheep having their legs broken or having body parts such as ears shorn off. When the sheep are no longer useful to farmers, they are killed or sent off to be killed somewhere else. They are often transported in terrible conditions with overcrowding and no shade, water or food (remember the live export scandal a couple of years ago).
If you want wool that is sourced in a way that doesn’t harm the sheep, look for products that subscribe to the Responsible Wool Standard or the ZQ Standard. These standards certify that farmers do not practice mulesing, look after animal welfare, enforce environmental sustainability and pay workers properly.
If you want to avoid wool entirely, you can turn to plant-based fibres such as cotton and linen. However, these generally don’t trap heat as well as wool and absorb a lot more moisture. If you’re after something that has the same properties as wool, the closest alternative is polyester or acrylic—synthetic fibres that aren’t the greatest for the earth.
Silk, the next nonvegan fabric on the list is created by unravelling the cocoons of silk worms. In traditional silk farming, workers drop cocoons still containing the worms in tubs of boiling water, killing the worms. They then unravel the cocoon and use various chemicals to degum the thread, which is then woven into fabric.
Peace silk or ahimsa silk is an alternative where the silk worms are allowed to emerge naturally from their cocoons before the cocoons are processed. When the worms (now moths) emerge, they tear the cocoon so that the silk is no longer one continuous strand. Peace silk takes longer and is more work to produce than regular silk because farmers have to wait for the worms to come out of their cocoons and have to work with broken cocoons. Peace silk might seem like a good option if you don’t want to have worms boiled alive for your clothing but still want the amazing drape, shine and cooling properties of the fabric. However, since there is no certification for peace silk, you can’t guarantee that it is what it says it is and isn’t just regular silk being sold at a higher price.
Alternatives to silk include viscose, bamboo, Tencel, lyocell and, believe it or not, spider silk. Viscose or rayon is fabric made from wood pulp where the fibres are extracted and spun into thread. However, the production of viscose often uses a variety of toxic chemicals. Tencel/lyocell are variations of viscose that are produced from sustainably-farmed trees in a closed production loop, meaning the energy and chemicals used in the production process are reused over and over. Bamboo is produced similarly and grows much faster than trees, so it can be renewed faster. Bamboo and Tencel both have good drape, are fairly lightweight like silk, but are generally not as shiny. For properties of shine, polyester is the best alternative.
Spider silk is silk that is produced in a lab using genetic engineering. The gene for producing silk is placed into yeast cells, which then produce the silk. Spider silk called Microsilk is manufactured by Bolt Threads and has been turned into a set of limited-edition ties, beanies, a gold Stella McCartney dress and a Stella McCartney and Adidas tennis dress. It’s not widely available yet but who knows, maybe in the future we will all be able to wear this incredible material.
Cashmere comes from the hair of a goat that lives in the Kashmir region in Asia. Herds of goats roam the plains with herders shearing them every year. The goats seem to be treated well as they are more or less wild. The main issue is that over the past decades, demand for cashmere has increased and brands have sought to provide it for cheaper and cheaper prices. This means that herders need more and more goats to make a living and all these goats damage the environment. When the goats graze they rip up plants, killing them completely, which leads to desertification of the land.
Cashmere probably isn’t something many of us own anyway, but if you were thinking of splurging on the luxe fabric, do some research beforehand and try to buy recycled cashmere or sustainable cashmere such as that which comes from the brand NADAAM.
Angora is another super luxe fabric not many people would ordinarily own. It is made from the hair of angora rabbits. Up to 90% of angora is made in China, where there are no laws regulating animal cruelty. Angora rabbits are kept in small solitary cages and their hair is often ripped out rather than shorn because this results in longer, better quality hair. It’s hard to get angora ethically because having the rabbit free range requires daily brushing to stop hair from getting matted, which is uneconomical for companies. I would avoid angora altogether.
To have a more compassionate wardrobe, consider where materials come from the next time you go clothes shopping. Try to avoid animal materials or buy animal materials that have been certified as responsibly produced. Try to buy sustainable or plant-based alternatives. Most of the really interesting options like pineapple leather or spider silk are currently unavailable or really expensive, but hopefully as the technology matures, they will become something we can all own. Bear in mind, however, that these still have an environmental impact, as everything requires lots of energy and water to be produced. To help mother nature, the best thing you can do is shop less and consume less.