When people think of the vegan lifestyle, often the first thing that comes to mind is what can’t be eaten and what can be eaten. However, veganism extends to more than just the food on your plate, animal products can also be used to create clothing. Leather, wool, fur, and silk, for example, are often used to make a variety of different garments and accessories.
But, what do vegans wear? This comprehensive guide provides insights into different animal product industries, as well as which materials are and aren’t cruelty-free.
What Do Vegans Wear That’s Cruelty-Free?
The Leather Industry
Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry; it is derived from a number of different animals, but the most common form of leather is made from cow skin. According to animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the majority of leather is imported from China and India, where animal welfare standards are very low.
“Buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and slaughterhouses because the skin is the most economically important coproduct of the meat industry,” says the organization.
The production of the material is also harmful to the environment, not only because of the impact on the planet from animal agriculture, but also because of the toxins produced during the tanning process.
Are There Vegan Versions of Leather?
There are a number of vegan alternatives to leather, with designers and scientists creating new leather-like cruelty-free materials all the time. As highlighted by sustainable clothing designer Sarah Lillier, “faux leather has come a long way from the ‘pleather’ of the past.” She told LIVEKINDLY, “Faux leather now lasts longer, looks better, and develops the ‘patina’ shine that leather is famous for.”
Vegan leathers can be made from synthetic material, like PU, to create boots, bags, belts, and other accessories. Different fruits and other plant-based materials are increasingly popular in creating vegan textiles that look and feel like leather. Piñatex, a pineapple-derived vegan leather, has been used by Italian fashion brand Altiir makes stylish biker jackets and men’s sneakers by Hugo Boss. Veja creates vegan leather sneakers from corn. Even major footwear brand Adidas offers vegan leather shoes.
New Jersey-based startup Modern Meadow is even using cellular agriculture to make eco-friendly lab-grown vegan leather. “We have engineered a strain of yeast – like a cousin of what you’d use to brew beer – which can produce collagen through fermentations,” said CEO Andrew Forgacs, the company’s CEO, to CNBC. “Collagen, which is found in animal skins, is the main biological building block of leather. We assemble it into a range of materials that become our ‘Zoa bioleather.'”
The Wool Industry
Sheep’s wool – or wool derived from any other animal, like angora goat or rabbit wool – is not worn by vegans. Many believe the wool shearing process does not harm sheep, but in many cases, due to overcrowding of animals – and shearers getting paid by the amount of wool they produce and not by the hour – the animals are roughly handled and injured. Wool is also bad for the environment, with sheep farming named as one of the worst producers of methane gas.
Does Cruelty-Free Wool Exist?
Vegan wool products do exist, thanks to innovative designers such as Stella McCartney and CROP. Last year, McCartney joined up with PETA to launch a vegan wool biodesign challenge for fashion students. The students were tasked with creating a workable, usable vegan wool. The winners created “Woocoa,” a wool-like material that’s made with hemp and coconut fibers and treated with oyster mushrooms.
PETA’s director of corporate affairs Anne Brainard said, “The kind minds behind Woocoa came up with an eco-friendly, biofabricated material that will satisfy consumers and keep sheep from being shorn bloody for cruelly obtained wool. PETA’s animal-free wool prize gives compassionate aspiring designers the boost that they need to help change the world for the better.”
CROP – led by designer Kate Morris – is already making vegan knitwear, out of organic cotton and bamboo. The cotton is even produced under the Cotton for Life scheme, which promotes the traceability of the material along the entire production chain.
The Fur Industry
Like wool and leather, fur production is harmful to the planet and to the animals. Minks are most commonly exploited for their fur. Seals, foxes, and chinchillas are among other species bred on fur farms or caught in traps for their furs.
On farms, the animals spend most of their time in small cages, where they are vulnerable to stress and disease. Because of the stressful conditions, minks have been known to mutilate themselves and pace around in circles.
The industry is also bad for the environment, claims PETA. “The amount of energy needed to produce a real fur coat from ranch-raised animal skins is approximately 20 times that needed to produce a fake fur garment,” the organization notes. “Nor is fur biodegradable, thanks to the chemical treatment applied to stop the fur from rotting.”
Are There Vegan Alternatives to Fur?
There are a number of vegan, faux fur alternatives on the market. High street retailers, such as Nasty Gal and Missguided, offer a variety of jackets and coats using faux fur. And in 2018, Stella McCartney developed a new “fur-free fur” and a number of designers – including Versace and Donna Karan – decided to ditch the real thing in favor of a vegan alternative, similar in texture.
“We’re seeing a sharp increase in alternatives to leather and fur goods across high-end and commercial fashion industries which is shaping the way consumers shop and the environment,” industry expert Beverly Friedmann told LIVEKINDLY. “Generally, all fur is treated with complex chemical processes which have toxic effects on the environment, waterways, and workers who treat them.”
She continued, “Instead, consumers are even turning to high-end designers like Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten, and Cavalli to just as easily find the same faux pieces with the same beautiful aesthetics as their real counterparts – without any cruelty or environmental harm involved.”
Telling the Difference Between Fur and Faux
Some high street brands have come under fire for labeling real fur as faux, even if they have a no-fur policy. Claire Bass, the director of the Humane Society International (HSI), told the Guardian last year, “[These stores] are all companies with commendable no-fur polices, so it is very disappointing to find that real animal fur has slipped into their stores described as faux fur.” Because of this, it’s always good to check first yourself if the product you’re buying has real animal-derived fur on it or a vegan version, even if its labeled as the latter.
First, ignore the price tag. It is a common misconception that real fur will be more expensive than a vegan version. Wendy Higgins of HSI told the Guardian, “The appallingly poor conditions that animals suffer on fur farms mean real fur can be produced and sold more cheaply than faux fur.”
Next, look at the tips. If its faux fur, the ends will be blunt, where they have been cut. However, if the ends taper, like the fur on your dog or cat, this is likely to have come from a real animal. Looking at the base can also help you decipher if the fur is real or fake; if its fake, the back will be a woven material, if its real, it will have a leathery back. Burning the hair is also an option for items you may already own, but want to check if they’re real fur or not. If it smells and melts like plastic, it’s fake. If it singes, as your own hair would, it’s probably real.
The Silk Industry
Derived from silkworms, silk is not deemed as vegan-friendly. According to PETA, to create the sought-after soft material, distributors boil silkworms alive inside their cocoons. Although some believe that the tiny caterpillar – the larva of a domestic silkmoth – can’t feel pain, PETA maintains otherwise. It notes on its website, “Anyone who has ever seen worms startle when their dark homes are uncovered must acknowledge that worms are sensate – they produce endorphins and have a physical response to pain.”
There are some brands that use “peace silk;” this is when the worms are allowed to hatch and the leftover cocoon is collected and made into silk. However, according to McCartney, this method is not always reliable, and the silk can break easily. PETA also maintains that there are ethical consequences of this process, with some sellers forcing the worms out of their cocoons prematurely or providing them with inadequate supplies of food. There is also the issue that, like fur, some fabrics may be mislabelled as “peace silk” when they are not.
PETA notes, “Although sellers claim that these materials have been produced from cocoons that were collected after the moths naturally emerged, no certification authorities exist to guarantee that these standards are upheld, and there have been reports of conventional silk being sold as ‘peace silk.'”
Can You Buy Vegan Silk?
There are a number of vegan alternatives to silk, such as nylon, polyester, rayon, milkweed seed-pod fibers, and silk-cotton tree filaments, for example.
One company in Italy has even created a vegan silk-like material out of citrus fruit. Named Orange Fiber, the brand makes its material out of byproducts from the juice industry, reusing thousands of tons of waste that would end up in the landfill.
The brand notes, “We’re proud to have identified and developed a tremendous opportunity for the application of industrial ecology, allowing us to reduce waste as well as pollution by transforming citrus juice byproducts into a new and sustainable product.”
The Exotic Skins Industry
Exotic leathers include the skins of animals like crocodiles, snakes, alligators, and other reptiles. According to PETA, the industry, with few laws in place to regulate it, is cruel and torturous for all animals involved; reptiles are sensitive to pain and stressful conditions and can develop deformities and painful conditions when they cannot exhibit normal behaviors.
One exposé by the organization showed crocodiles being subjected to electroshock and metal rods rammed down their spines. Two of the farms investigated supplied crocodile skins to Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH. On top of this cruelty, the industry is also wasteful; to make one single bag, up to four crocodiles can be killed.
Can You Buy Vegan Crocodile Skin Accessories?
Topshop, H&M, and Victoria’s Secret have all banned exotic skins from their ranges, and most recently, major luxury label Chanel did the same. Like vegan versions of cow leather, vegan exotic skins can be made from a number of synthetic materials, like PU. Designer Tom Ford has even created his own version of vegan crocodile skin, launching a line of accessories using the material at New York Fashion Week in September 2018.
How to Shop and Dress Ethically
Shopping and dressing ethically is easier than it’s ever been before, with new sustainable and vegan brands popping up all the time. Labante London offers a wide variety of vegan luxury leather accessories, for example, and KESTAN, co-founded by designer Stephanie Lin, is a socially conscious womenswear brand that uses vegan leather and eco-fiber blends to make its products.
Lin told LIVEKINDLY, “To shop ethical, we recommend that you look into the brand. For example, at KESTAN we allow our customers to explore where their clothes come from, what kind of materials we use, and why we make those choices.”
As Lin says, if you’re buying from a chain or a brand you’re unfamiliar with, it’s always good to spend some time doing some research. Make sure you know who you’re buying from and what they stand for, so you know your purchases are always as as ethical as your values.