The fashion industry has spawned no shortage of animal cruelty horror stories, ranging from geese being “live-plucked” for down jackets to crocodiles skinned for luxury handbags and beyond. Brands may have gotten away with such atrocities in the past, but a growing demand for transparency has helped bring the issue of animal exploitation to light. As a result, vegan fashion is thriving.
Instead of animal products such as fur, feathers, wool, skins, and silk, vegan clothing is made from synthetic or plant fibers, and the environmental impact of those fibers is about as varied as the materials themselves.
Animal Exploitation in the Fashion Industry
Animal products have been used to make clothing since prehistoric times. Somewhere along the line, though, the old-fashioned pelt evolved from being a survival essential to a symbol of wealth.
Animal-based fashion continued to be worn and coveted long after the invention of modern-day clothing as we now know it—in which animal and vegetable fibers are woven or knitted into cloth. It wasn’t until the likes of PETA and other animal rights organizations rolled out a series of famous anti-fur campaigns in the 1980s and ’90s that animal-based clothing faced criticism on a large scale.
Protests against fur led to others against wool, feathers, and leather. Today, brands that were once negligent have tightened up their animal welfare policies and a host of certifications have emerged to raise the industry standard. Yet, animal products are still ubiquitous in fashion—and the methods used to obtain them are often still problematic.
Here are some of the most common materials and their environmental impacts.
Fur is arguably the most controversial material in fashion. Fur farming requires animals like minks, rabbits, foxes, chinchillas, and raccoon dogs to “spend their entire lives confined to cramped, filthy wire cages,” PETA says, only to be gassed, electrocuted, or skinned alive and turned into clothing.
Various U.S. laws like the Fur Seal Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act protect wildlife from this same fate, but fur is still widely treated as a crop—one that generates a reported $40 billion a year globally and employs more than one million people.
The fur trade is terrible for the environment. The phosphorous and nitrogen-rich manure from these animals pollutes the air and runs off into waterways where it compromises oxygen levels and kills aquatic life.
The fur itself goes through a complex process of dressing and dyeing in which toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, chromium, and naphthalene are used. That process also prevents the fur from biodegrading as it would in nature, consequently elongating its lifespan in landfills after it’s discarded.
Leather is made from animal skins that undergo tanning, a chemical treatment process similar to the one used on fur. The species used for this material range from crocodiles and snakes to zebras, kangaroos, and pigs. Most leather sold in the U.S. is made from cow and calf skins.
The animals used for leather are often kept in poor conditions on large farms that contribute to global warming through their vast contribution of methane (a greenhouse gas emitted through cow flatulence).
Cattle farming is also immensely water-intensive—in fact, agriculture accounts for 92% of humanity’s freshwater footprint—and a leading cause of deforestation because cows require so much feed, usually in the form of palm and soy.
Silk is made from the soft fibers silkworms produce when they spin themselves into cocoons. To make the fibers easier to unwind, cocoons are exposed to extreme heat—through boiling or baking—which kills the pupae inside.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America says “peace silk” and “cruelty-free silk” allow for the moth to leave its cocoon before harvesting, but the problem is “that it is lower in quality than conventional silk because of the staple length filament threads are cut short.”
Silk fibers are biodegradable, and the mulberry trees used for silkworm farming don’t require many pesticides or fertilizers. However, mulberry trees must be kept warm and humid to mimic their native Asian climate—this, in addition to the constant heating of cocoons, demands a great deal of energy. One study estimates that the drying process alone consumes one kilowatt-hour of electricity per kilogram of cocoons.
Fashion’s use of feathers raises the same animal welfare concerns as its use of fur and skins, especially considering the industry’s history of “live plucking,” in which plumage is removed while the animal is still alive.
With regards to their “green-ness,” feathers are traditionally treated with either aldehyde or alum, both considered pollutants.
Raising sheep for wool chews through precious resources, including land that could foster biodiversity, feed that bolsters deforestation, and freshwater needed desperately by humans and wildlife alike.
As with leather, wool is a coproduct of sheep farming (for meat). Once the sheep is too old to be deemed profitable, it’s often slaughtered and eaten. That said, certifications like the Responsible Wool Standard and Woolmark support a more ethical and sustainable wool market.
Synthetic Alternatives Not the Solution
Today, about 60% of clothing is made from plastic. Fur is often faux, true leather shares a category with “pleather” (a portmanteau of “plastic” and “leather”), and polyester has largely replaced natural silk.
The shift to synthetics is good news for animals long exploited for fashion but possibly even worse for the planet, as these materials are often made from crude oil.
The fast fashion industry now favors synthetic materials because they can be produced much more cheaply and efficiently than their natural counterparts. The manufacturing of these fabrics involves some 20,000 chemicals, many of them derived from fossil fuels, that now make up a fifth of the entire world’s wastewater.
Textile mills also generate a plethora of destructive greenhouse gas emissions through the processes of coating, drying, curing, bleaching, dyeing, finishing, and running energy-sucking machinery. These emissions include hydrocarbons, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic components. One of the textile industry’s major pollutants, nitrous oxide (a byproduct of adipic acid, used to make nylon and polyester), reportedly has 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
Microplastics and Post-Consumer Waste
What’s more, petroleum-based clothing continues to pollute even after it’s reached the consumer. It’s been called “the main source of primary microplastics in the oceans,” as washing just one load releases millions of tiny plastic debris into wastewater systems. Recent research has revealed that polyester also creates air pollution just by being worn.
Although synthetic fibers are often more water- and stain-resistant than their natural counterparts, they’re not likely to remain intact for decades like the fur and leather you now find while vintage shopping. Cheaply made “plastic clothing” is often chemically unstable and therefore prone to losing shape and falling apart, ultimately driving an unsustainable cycle of waste and overconsumption.
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans threw away 17 million tons in textiles, making up 5.8% of all municipal solid waste. This is especially concerning because synthetic materials take up to 200 years to decompose. Natural fabrics, for comparison, typically break down within weeks or months.
Deforestation for Fabric
Sharing a camp with the nylons and polyesters of the synthetic textile world are human-made cellulosic fibers such as rayon, viscose, modal, and lyocell—all of which are produced from wood pulp. These are often categorized as “semi-synthetic” because they come from natural materials but must still undergo chemical processes.
They’re made by taking cellulose from softwoods (pine, spruce, hemlock, etc.) and converting it to a liquid that is then extruded in a chemical bath and spun into yarn. In addition to the chemical pollution generated through production, these materials are also responsible for deforestation to the tune of 70 million tons of trees per year—and by 2034, that number is expected to double.
Organic and Recycled Plant Fibers Most Sustainable
When not made from synthetic fibers, vegan clothing is typically produced from plants. Cotton is the most common example of this, making up a third of the world’s apparel fiber consumption. Other plant-based fibers derive from bamboo, hemp, and flax. Here’s where each stands on the sustainability scale.
The popularity of conventionally grown cotton is recoiling as more environmental issues surrounding its production are exposed. For instance, the global cotton crop is treated with some 200,000 metric tons of pesticides and 8 million metric tons of synthetic fertilizers per year, resulting in an annual carbon footprint of 220 million metric tons. These chemicals wreak havoc on the soil and water. According to the World Wildlife Fund, they “affect biodiversity directly by immediate toxicity or indirectly through long-term accumulation.”
Cotton cultivation also leads to habitat destruction because the crops degrade soil quality over time and force farmers to expand to new areas.
One of its most well-known environmental downfalls, however, is its water consumption. A single t-shirt is reportedly worth 600 gallons—roughly how much a human drinks over the course of three years.
Shoppers are advised to choose organic cotton, which is grown using more regenerative farming practices and less pesticides and fertilizers, or recycled cotton. The widely referenced Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, which ranks the sustainability of textiles from Class A (the best) to Class E (the worst), categorizes conventional cotton in Class E, organic cotton in Class B, and recycled cotton in Class A.
Bamboo fabric is more sustainable to grow than cotton. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, it sequesters carbon, requires less water and chemicals, prevents soil erosion, and can be harvested more efficiently because it’s cut like grass rather than uprooted.
However, it also has its drawbacks. Bamboo is often sourced from China, where healthy forests are being rapidly cleared to meet the growing demand for this fast-growing crop.
Hemp is a high-yielding, carbon-negative crop widely praised for its low impact and sustainability. After the leaves have been harvested, the stalks break down and return the plant’s nutrients back to the soil. Hemp has about half to 75% of the water footprint of cotton and has a smaller ecological footprint than both cotton (including organic) and polyester.
As a bonus, organic hemp is turned into fabric through an entirely mechanical process, requiring no chemicals. Chemicals are, however, used to make conventional hemp fibers, which are often labeled as “hemp viscose.”
The flax plant, used to make linen, is exceedingly adaptable, able to grow in a range of climates, which helps keep its shipping miles to a minimum. It’s gentle on water and energy use—in fact, 80% of the energy and water consumption of linen comes just from washing and ironing the garment post-production.
However, conventional flax can be chemically retted (aka soaked so that it can be spun) and treated with a host of dyes, bleaches, and other synthetic treatments. Conventional flax gets a C rating on the Made-By Environmental Benchmark, whereas organic flax gets an A.
How You Can Reduce Your Fashion Footprint
- Start by loving what you have. Sustainable fashion activist and cofounder of Fashion Revolution Orsola de Castro says, “the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe.”
- Shop secondhand whenever you can. Thrifting is also a great way to support charities.
- Before discarding an item of clothing, try mending it, donating it, upcycling it, recycling it, or turning it into household rags. The landfill should be a last resort.
- Rent clothes through services like Stitch Fix and Rent the Runway for special occasions.
- If you must buy new clothing, look for certifications that guarantee sustainable and socially responsible practices, such as Global Organic Textile Standard, Fairtrade, B Corp, and WRAP.