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Vegan vs animal-based fashion: which one is more sustainable?

By Regina Henkel


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Vegan fashion is in. An indication for this is the first Vegan Fashion Week, which premiered in Los Angeles in early February. But the boom is calling on more and more critics, who accuse animal rights activists of lacking sustainability, of all things.

Debunking the “myths” of vegan fashion

A week ago, the British Consumer Choice Center announced in a press release the start of the #ChoiceInFashion campaign: “We want to inform consumers about animal-derived materials and to debunk the myths and urban legends about vegan fashion that are being spread by self-proclaimed animal rights groups.” Consumers would be put under increasing pressure to avoid animal products, laments the campaign. The CCC (which uses the same abbreviation as the Clean Clothes Campaign) represents consumers in more than 100 countries and is fighting for the preservation of a choice in consumer products (not only in fashion) and against increasing regulations. “We are closely monitoring regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other regulation hotspots and inform and activate consumers in order to fight for the continuation of choice", it adds. In short: the demonisation of animal products should stop.

Fur has been criticised for decades

It all started with fur. At least since the ‘80s, every child knows that real fur is pretty much uncool or at least questionable. Who dares walk the streets of Germany in a mink coat should be prepared for hostilities. Strangely enough though, this has, however, not prevented the emergence of parka fashion with countless fur trims on hoods or fur pompoms, often without the wearer’s knowledge: Surveys show that they thought the fur was fake. Surely, the differences between real and fake fur are hard to make out by now but textile labels should clear the doubts. However, it seems to be a fact that although many consumers are against fur, they do not necessarily act that way.

Animal rights activists become shareholders

To change all this, animal rights organisations have been confrontational for years and have initiated media-effective activities in city centres, in front of stores, company headquarters or trade fairs. Often with prominent support. In Germany, branches of department store Breuninger and luxury ski brand Bogner were attacked recently because of their use of real fur. In the fall of 2018, Breuninger relented and announced it would no longer offer real fur in its selections from 2020 onward. The news was even broadcast on TV channel RTL, and the increasing success spurred on animal rights activists further. In addition, animal welfare organisation PETA bought shares of numerous fashion houses to influence them from the inside - as a shareholder - on the materials used in the collections. This is how PETA became shareholder of Canada Goose, LVMH, Prada, etc.

Vegans want to ban all animal-based fibres

By now, it is no longer only about fur. With the worldwide vegan lifestyle - partly triggered by scandalous animal husbandry practices - each animal-based or animal-produced textile raw material ends up on the Red List - from leather via silk and wool to down feathers. Gruesome reports about cruelty to animals have caused so much public pressure that numerous fashion companies not only loudly banned the use of fur or exotic leather but also of mohair, angora and silk.The list of brands is getting longer and longer, reaching from Chanel to Esprit. At the same time, more and more vegan collections are being bought, for example at Marks & Spencer. Even trade fairs react: Helsinki Fashion Week banned leather last summer.

Using exotic skins is animal welfare

Nowadays, however, some animal rights campaigners propagate the exact opposite: Especially the economic use of certain animal products ensures the continued existence of these breeds and prevents an uncontrollable killing of wild animals, they argue. This applies, they say, for example, to many types of exotic skins. These animals are bred on farms to produce leather and are not yet threatened by extinction because of it.

When Chanel banned the use of reptile skins in 2018 due to public pressure, it faced criticism too: "Instead of working on improvements, Chanel chooses the lazy way out", commented Dr. Rosie Cooney, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group according to Business of Fashion. Thus, the label "guilt-free", which vegan fashion likes to claim, is turned into the exact opposite.

Vegan fashion is bad for the environment

And that's not all: To the extent that the vegan lifestyle has become the new mainstream, accusations by environmentalists are increasing who support animal welfare in principle but not the use of synthetic materials. What is sold as vegan "leather" is often nothing but polyester or polyurethane. In other words, a plastic fiber that first of all, is made from crude oil and is therefore not renewable. Second, it is not biodegradable and thus littering our planet and third, reaches the food chain in the form of microplastics. And fourth: There is currently no way to recycle shoes. Vegan wool substitutes are also problematic: The synthetic fibre Polyacryl is used to achieve a wool-like look.

Vegan does not equal environmentally friendly

Thus, one can conclude that vegan fashion is not necessarily an environmentally friendly or sustainable alternative. One has to distinguish, which is important, and may actually often be overlooked. Nevertheless, the tone of many current anti-vegan campaigns is irritating. The common argument that vegan fashion relies on plastic and litters the environment is as shallow as the vegans’ general accusation that animal products originate from cruel animal breeding practices. Neither is correct as not all animal fibers are per se more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibers, nor are all animals kept in a cruel way. What is irritating, therefore, is that ethical and sustainable arguments are getting mixed up and exploited. Those who decide not to use animal products usually do so for ethical reasons. And these do not necessarily have to do with environmental protection.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited DE; edited and translated by Simone Preuss.

Photo: FashionUnited / Regina Henkel

Clean Clothes Campaign