Faded hemp dresses and tattered cork boots have been replaced by soft over-the-knee boots, tight silk minidresses and ice-colored crossbody bags. Vegan fashion has finally found its way with a new generation choosing to remove meat from their diets and wardrobes – and the fashion industry has responded with a string of coveted animal-free collections.
But look behind the curtain and it becomes clear that innovation sometimes causes more problems than it solves.
Vegan leather is now ubiquitous and available from brands such as Marks & Spencer and Zara, as well as most UK mid-range brands.
The fashion industry understandably wants to promote it as an exciting new alternative – partly because leather goods generate a lot of money, but also because selling them is an easy way to demonstrate your ethics.
The truth, however, is that while the methane produced by cows means that genuine leather is not good for the planet, the petroleum used to replace it is likely much worse.
“It’s a real hot potato,” says Suzanne Lee, founder of biotech company Biofabricate. “Especially in fashion, we’re always looking for shortcuts, and vegan leather is currently touted as an eco-friendly alternative to animal leather, but unfortunately many companies aren’t clear about what that means.”
For all the new innovations, little has changed since the days of leatherette – today, most vegan leather is still made of polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both of which are extremely polluting. Even brands that claim to use plant-based materials often make as little as 25 percent of their products from cactus or pineapple peel, and the rest from plastic. The fashion industry remains deeply unregulated, so there are no obstacles to it.
“It’s green laundry, 100 percent,” says Lee. “It annoys me a lot, but we see it every day. We often get brands coming to us with this new vegan leather they’ve been offered and we have to tell them it’s basically plastic. I would dare to say that vegan fashion is the main area where greenwashing is a problem.”
Unfortunately, these companies sell their goods to consumers who, by and large, do everything in their power to make a positive impact. This is especially evident in January when, thanks to the popularity of the plant-based vegan food initiative, searches for vegan fashion are higher than at any other time of year.
“It’s a shame because so many kids get excited about vegan diets and want to buy a vegan bag, and they’re horrified to find out it’s mostly plastic,” says Lee.
Shades of grey
The problem starts when people confuse their eating habits with their clothing consumption. “We need to educate people to think about fashion in shades of grey, not black and white,” says Lee. “Vegan food is simple – not just because the ingredients are listed. We don’t get that with materials, so there are plenty of opportunities to hide what’s lurking in the products.”
He cites several companies that purport to make leather accessories from cacti or apples, but which, according to Lee, base few materials on actual plant products, instead relying overwhelmingly on plastic, which is much more polluting.
But because these “alternative leathers” are only partially plastic, have been recycled and contain many different components, they are also difficult to recycle. This means that many discarded vegan skins are likely to end up in landfills.
For some people, this is still preferable to contributing to the slaughter of animals or creating materials from crude and environmentally harmful fossil fuels – but the lack of transparency means few consumers make this choice consciously.
One company that is trying to fight disinformation is Pangaia. This innovative Los Angeles brand is very scientifically advanced and has become one of the precursors of vegan fashion. It also has a policy of providing customers with as much detail as possible.
“Right now, about 60 percent of all fashion is made up of synthetics, and synthetics are clean fossil fuels,” says Pangaia COO Amanda Parkes. “We don’t want to add anything to that and we want to make sure all virgin content is ethical and no animals have died – but we know solutions aren’t always perfect so we tell the client as much as we can.”
“Nothing is simple,” Lee agrees. “The dairy industry is very polluting, but the truth is that most of the leather used in fashion comes from cow skins that have always been intended to be slaughtered for food – if you want to make a difference, convince someone to eat less meat and do more than just convince them to buy a plastic bag.”
Which means ensuring that – for now – leather will not replace fur. Fur was the first animal product to gain worldwide attention thanks to Peta’s headline-generating efforts, and now it’s rightfully frowned upon in almost all quarters. But faux fur – which is usually made of polluting synthetic materials – really isn’t much better.
And while there are a few companies, such as Maison Atia and House of Fluff, as well as Stella McCartney’s recently developed KOBA Fur-Free Fur, that make faux fur from environmentally friendly plant-based products – none are particularly affordable.
“Cheap faux fur is basically plastic,” says Lee. “It’s a fossil polymer that comes from petroleum, is toxic and nasty and goes straight to the landfill. Anyone who cares about the planet should never buy one.”
When it comes to wool, vegan options are also a bad idea, not least because the real thing is one of the most eco-friendly materials you can buy. Even Stella McCartney – who never uses leather or silk in her designs – will use responsibly sourced wool.
Dana Thomas, acclaimed author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, agrees: “Wool is not only good, it’s also active because when it wears out, it can be safely composted – and in my book, that’s important , ” she says.
King Charles and publisher Nicholas Coleridge even campaigned for people to wear more wool in the name of saving the planet from plastic derivatives. “It’s really crazy that people wear synthetic T-shirts instead of wool ones,” says Coleridge.
“Not only is it much greener than the alternative – but the energy crisis means that wool is more important than ever because it provides twice as much warmth. This was widely understood in medieval Britain, but has somehow been forgotten in recent decades.”
Tamara Cincik, founder of fashion consultancy Roundtable, has been a vegan for 20 years and is actively campaigning for people to wear more wool. “One of the most important things you can do for the planet is buy clothes that are made close to home,” she says. “I know I’m doing something good when I buy British wool products.”
Then there’s silk, which gets far less airplay, despite reports by animal rights groups of maggots being boiled alive in their cocoons. There are some planet-friendly, plant-derived materials that mimic the feel and drape of silk, such as Bolt Threads – but they remain almost exclusively available in the realm of luxury.
“Honestly, since silk is a small percentage of the total market, stopping it will do little more than putting some people in low-income countries out of work – mostly women,” says Lee. “When you look at the amount of polyester produced each day and the amount of silk, I don’t think the latter is the right place to concentrate our efforts.”
Lee touched on the biggest problem of all here – the huge amount of clothing created every day by the industry. Unfortunately, since fashion exists to sell products, it’s easier to tell planet-conscious people to buy a pair of vegan shoes than to tell the truth: buying nothing remains by far the most environmentally friendly choice you can make.