Last year, researchers at Oxford University published a paper concluding that switching to a plant-based diet can have positive impacts, not only on our health but also for the environment . This is great news for those of us who care about people’s wellbeing, animals, and the planet. But did you know veganism isn’t just about food? People who follow a vegan lifestyle also choose not to wear animals, either! And some people may choose to support cruelty-free fashion even if they aren’t vegan in their day-to-day life. So, let’s take a look together to answer the question: what is vegan fashion?
In the fashion sphere, the vegan trend isn’t new—technically, our basic organic cotton t-shirt or ubiquitous jeans, for example, are vegan in that they contain no animal substances. However, brands’ use of terminology such as “vegan” and “cruelty-free” has been gaining in prominence over the years, possibly in part thanks to conscious consumers who are keen on extending their vegan principles to all areas of their life, beyond the plant-based food and animal-free cosmetics they may already purchase.
But even if you don’t call yourself vegan in everyday life, you may still be tempted by vegan or cruelty-free fashion. Why? Because the interesting thing about it is that it seems to win hands down over conventional fashion, in terms of several human, environmental, and of course animal welfare impacts. Let’s see what all the fuss is about…
A few definitions
Most of us will be familiar with the terms “vegan” and “cruelty-free” in the context of food and beauty products. Whilst there is no overarching legal definition of these terms, the beauty industry has typically defined them as follows:
- vegan: a product which contains no animal, or animal-derived, substances; and
- cruelty-free: a product which has not been tested, and whose ingredients have not been tested, on animals
In the beauty industry, these terms refer to two different things: one is the product elaboration process (is it carried out without involving animals?), the other is the finished product (does it contain any substances of animal origin?). Here’s the tricky—and slightly misleading—part: a product can be vegan but not cruelty-free, if it contains no animal products but was tested on animals…or vice versa: it could be labelled “cruelty-free” due to no animal testing but contain animal substances. So for discerning consumers, the distinction is important.
In the fashion industry, there is less of a distinction between the terms “vegan” and “cruelty-free” for the simple reason that there is no obligation to carry out animal testing for apparel and accessories—so in fashion the terms tend to be used interchangeably. That said, for the super-conscious consumer, understanding what goes on in the beauty space can help us make certain choices in fashion—for example, if a company sells “vegan” clothes, would we still buy them knowing that the same brand tests its fragrances and cosmetics on animals?
What’s going on with animals in fashion?
Put simply, they are being exploited on fur farms, cattle ranches, and abattoirs (to name a few), and the lack of transparency and traceability on the part of brands means that it is impossible for consumers to know in what conditions the animals ending up in our fashion items were reared, transported, or slaughtered.
Global organisations such as Humane Society International and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have documented widespread abuse of animals for the sake of fashion—and some of us will remember PETA’s campaign featuring supermodels bearing the slogan: “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”.
Granted, not everyone is tempted by (or can afford) fur—though it is often found in relatively inexpensive trimmings and accessories too. But take good old leather, widely present in both fashion apparel and accessories. The leather industry is rife with animal cruelty, lack of regulation and enforcement, as well as labour abuses, including tanneries employing underage children and harming their workers and communities with toxic chemicals. Due to complex supply chains, most of the world’s leather is untraceable, so could also be contributing to deforestation in the Amazon. And don’t get us started on the fallacy of leather being a by-product of the meat industry, about which we’ve written previously.
Even for those of us who would choose to not wear anything originating from a dead animal, such as fur, leather, or other skins, it’s still worth bearing in mind that animals used (as opposed to killed) for fashion suffer immensely—so if you are concerned about animal welfare, you may want to consider moving away from wool, angora, and all other animal-derived materials, too.
Likely as a result of both hard-hitting public campaigns, and consumers demanding greater accountability from companies, the fashion world has seen some major shifts towards a more compassionate approach. Fashion weeks such as London, Amsterdam, and Melbourne have become fur-free—with Helsinki going one step further by also becoming leather-free and skins-free. Likewise, fashion heavyweights such as Prada, Gucci, and Burberry have dropped fur from their collections; Mulberry and Diane von Furstenberg, for example, have dropped exotic skins; whilst Chanel is the first luxury house to have dropped both fur and exotic skins— and highstreet brands are on it too: H&M and Nike for instance have both dropped exotic skins. Of course, as some of those brands might still use leather, wool, and other animal-derived materials they cannot be called vegan brands.
Nonetheless, such changes are a step forward not only in terms of animal welfare, but also from an environmental impact perspective: a Pulse of Fashion report released in 2017 concluded that from the perspective of environmental degradation, three out of the four worst fabrics are animal-derived, the four fabrics in questions being: leather, silk, conventional cotton, and wool—yet another reason to choose vegan fashion. For a concise guide on the environmental impacts of animal products in fashion, check out our existing article.
Let’s get dressed
If you are that way inclined, switching to vegan fashion is in fact extremely easy!
Here are a few suggestions:
- refer to the Good On You ratings—we’ve done a lot of the hard work for you, so if you’re not sure about how a brand fares with animals, check our Directory. Alongside the labour and environmental pillars, animal welfare is our third pillar when we rate brands. We’ll tell you whether a brand has a formal animal welfare policy in place, and how much transparency there is in its supply chain. You’ll also see which (if any) animal products it uses, including fur, angora, down, exotic skins, wool, and leather
- some brands have been vetted by PETA from an animal welfare perspective and are authorized to carry the “PETA-approved vegan” logo which you can keep an eye out for
- check your clothes labels—here are some suggestions for sustainable vegan fabrics
- look out for the innovative vegan fabrics already out there and currently being developed: from lab-grown silk or silk derived from citrus residue, to vegan leather alternatives made from fruit to leaves and back again (including the upcoming fungi-derived Mylo leather, developed thanks to collaboration among prominent industry players), to recyclable nylon known as ECONYL made from abandoned fishing nets, the future of vegan fabrics is promising
Vegan is the new green
Choosing vegan fashion makes sense for animal welfare and environmental reasons—and, particularly in the case of leather, often for social sustainability reasons too—and there are plenty of ways you can ensure that your wardrobe benefits both animals and the planet.
We’ll leave you with these words, which highlight the interconnectedness of the two: “Compassion towards animals deserves to be added as a UN Sustainable Development Goal because it is an issue of justice and science that is tied to some of the most harmful industries on the planet” – Joshua Katcher