The Environmental Impact of Animal Products in Fashion - Good On You
close up of a pile of sweaters
02 Mar
close up of a pile of sweaters

The Environmental Impact of Animal Products in Fashion

It has become well known in recent years that the choice of whether, or how often, to eat animal products can have a huge impact on our environmental footprint.

But what of our choices about what we wear? Can the use of animal products in fashion harm the environment in the same way that the meat industry does? And if so, what alternatives are out there? With World Wildlife Day in mind, it’s well worth considering how animal rights in the fashion industry can be linked with broader environmental issues. So if you’re dreaming of a wardrobe that’s kind to both the planet and all of its inhabitants, read on.

Wool

What could be cosier and more comforting than a woollen sweater? Unfortunately, the facts about wool production’s impact on the environment are not so comforting.

One of the main issues with wool, similar to the problem that makes the production of livestock for food so damaging, is the large amount of methane that is produced by sheep being farmed. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas with what’s known as “global warming potential”. As well as the actual sheep, these emissions also come from waste and fertiliser on the farms. Industrial size livestock grazing can also increase land clearing and degradation

This doesn’t mean that you need to go without your snug winter staples. The first step may just involve being mindful of the wool products that you own by trying to make the items last, and buying second hand wherever possible. For more info, have a read of our article that looks at the ethics and sustainability of wool.

bleed

Rated: Great
woman wearing sky blue wool turtleneck jumper from Bleed

If you’d rather go wool-free, labels such as Bleed sell animal-product free garments that are perfect for winter and gentler on the environment. Bleed’s environment rating is ‘Great’. For example, these sweaters are made from 100% organic cotton and are just as cozy as traditional woollens!

See the rating.

Shop Bleed.

Leather

While “real” leather jackets, boots, and handbags were once the height of cool, our awareness of the cruelty behind their production can put a dampener on their attraction.  However, as well as animal welfare concerns, there are a whole lot more reasons to consider saying no to leather and making the switch to the diverse range of leather alternatives available.

Environmentally, you’d be hard pressed to find a worse offender in terms of pollution of the air, water, soil, and atmosphere. This is because the process of turning animal skin into leather involves the use of many decidedly non-eco-friendly chemicals, dyes, and finishes, as well as a large amount of energy to power the process. Finally, effluent from tanneries which is a known pollutant of major waterways such as rivers contains washed out chemicals used in the production process including sulphur, nitrogen, and ammonia. Yikes.

So, is faux leather the answer? While a great step for animal welfare, simply buying animal-free or “vegan leather” can be somewhat of a lucky dip when it comes to environmental footprint. Unfortunately, some faux leather garments can still cause significant damage to the environment through their production, particularly those made from PVC, AKA glorified plastic.

The good news is that there are plenty of other surprising organic materials used in the production of shoes, jackets and other items traditionally made from leather, such as cork and pineapple leaf fibre, which are far more environmentally friendly than both animal leather and synthetic leather. Because cork can be stripped while the tree continues to grow, this is an extremely sustainable material—and pineapple leaf fibre is literally turning what was once considered trash into treasure! Here is one of our favourite labels that uses these innovative materials to create boots and other products.

NAE

Rated: Good
nae vegan black lace up boots

NAE is a Portuguese footwear brand using innovative materials to create shoes with “No Animal Exploitation”. Its sustainable shoe materials include recycled PET from bottles, OEKO-TEX® certified microfibres, recycled car tyres, natural cork, recycled thermoplastic, and even pineapple leaf fibre! NAE also lines its stylish sneakers with material made via a carbon-neutral manufacturing system.

See the rating.

Shop NAE.

For more information on ethical (and enviable) products, a great starting point is our material guide to eco- friendly leather alternatives that highlights some of the best animal-free fabrics that recreate leather’s famously hardy and durable qualities.

Fur

Fur has the dubious honour of being the first garment that people associate with animal cruelty, with famous protests and campaigns from the throwing of red paint to PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” etched into popular culture. What attracts less publicity but is just as worrying is its environmental impact.

The environmental impact of fur in fashion varies depending on the garment and animal used, but in general many of the problems present in the production of wool and leather (toxic chemical runoffs in the after process, and carbon emissions produced in the course of farming the animals) are also an issue with fur. In fact, as we point out in our article all about fur, the climate change impact of 1kg of mink fur is five times higher than that of wool!

What about faux fur? While obviously a massive improvement on real fur for our animal friends, even environmentally the impact is mitigated in some ways, in the sense that animals are not farmed for the material, so related emissions are not directly produced. However, there are still some problems to consider when buying clothing that uses large amounts of this material. One of the major issues is that faux fur is usually made from synthetic fibres that contribute to microfibre pollution, just like some faux leather products—an unfortunate trend that could be attributed to fast fashion hijacking the ethical fashion movement.

 

Remember, cheap fast fashion usually comes at a cost somewhere along the supply chain. That’s why our rule of thumb is to shop secondhand or invest in high quality, long-lasting pieces from labels that are transparent about their materials and processes used.

Of course, no material is perfect in terms of its environmental impact. But while there are some unfortunate examples of vegan products causing harmful waste and emissions, the evidence would still seem to show that it is the use of animal products that causes greater damage to the planet. Regardless, it’s a good idea to stay discerning and check the environmental rating of all companies on our Directory.

As well as the obvious harm to the welfare of animals that this practice causes, the use of animal products in clothing is equally harmful to the environment in a multitude of ways. However, the availability of garments made from materials that are both cruelty-free and have a lower environmental impact means that we can all play our part in lessening these problems. Fighting global warming while saving the lives of countless animals? That’s a win-win in our book.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world's most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.