We’ve all heard the reasons why a vegan diet is better for the environment, but what about when it comes to fashion? Animal-sourced materials such as leather, wool, and silk have long been a mainstay of the luxury fashion industry, but rising sustainability and ethical concerns have led to the rise in popularity of vegan fashion in recent years.
But is vegan fashion really better for the planet? When comparing animal-based ingredients to vegan alternatives, the answer is usually yes, even when looking at greenhouse gas emissions alone. Ashley Gill, senior director at the nonprofit Textile Exchange, told Vogue, “Current life cycle assessments (LCA) show that cowhide has higher GHG emissions than polyester or cotton production.” says. “Some of these emissions come from methane from cow digestion, emissions from food production, and deforestation in the leather supply chain.”
There is a similar story for wool and silk. Both materials have a greater impact on global warming than synthetic alternatives such as polyester and acetate, according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a tool that uses LCAs to measure the effects of different materials. However, these impact assessments may not always tell the whole story. Indeed, a 2018 study comparing the impact of four sweaters made of wool, cotton, polycotton and acrylic reveals that the wool sweater has the least impact when considering the use stage.
It’s also important to remember that many vegan alternatives often contain synthetics, at least up to a point, and that some so-called vegan leathers are actually 100 percent plastic. When it comes to materials like polyester, acrylic and acetate, which are often used as alternatives to wool and silk, they have the problem of releasing microplastics into our waterways when washed.
“Vegan is by no means a direct result of sustainability. Of course, there may be environmental benefits in some cases, but that’s not the point of the vegan definition.” comments Gill. “Something called vegan can also be made from pure plastic using highly toxic chemicals, and that’s really an important thing to understand.”
Sébastien Kopp, co-founder of Veja, an environmentally conscious sneaker brand that offers both vegan and non-vegan products, agrees. “Can you argue that you are more ecological if you replace leather with plastic fabrics derived from petroleum? If you follow the path of plastic, you will end up with oil.” says.
Even plant-based alternatives like Piñatex, made from pineapple waste, and Mylo, made from mushroom roots, contain some synthetics, raising questions about what happens to these materials at the end of their life given that they’re not biodegradable. The same goes for the coated cotton fabric Veja uses in its vegan sneakers. “We created an alternative to leather based on our fair trade and organic cotton,” Kopp said. he continues. “CWL consists of 60 percent organic cotton and 2 percent corn. The rest is still plastic but a great step into the future.”
Of course, such materials are still in development and will undoubtedly continue to evolve. It’s also worth noting that not all animal skins are biodegradable. On the other hand, there are increasing efforts to make animal-based materials more sustainable, whether through recycled fibers or sourcing fibers produced using renewable farming practices such as natural grazing. Establishing a more transparent supply chain will be crucial, as seen in the report revealing that leather is causing deforestation in the Amazon.
Nina Marenzi, founder of The Sustainable Angle, said: “Over the next few years you will have a smooth leather supply chain, from processing to traceability to high animal health.” makes a statement. “We’re really starting to think about how it can have a positive impact. Don’t we have materials that nourish the soil? Do they help increase topsoil biodiversity? When you look at it, you actually have a different approach to these materials, leather actually has a role to play.”
Of course, the ethical reasons people choose vegan fashion are obvious. But from an environmental perspective, when it comes to the question of whether it’s really better for the planet, it’s hard to give an answer as clear as black and white right now. That’s why the focus is now on making both vegan and non-vegan ingredients as sustainable as possible. “If you have best practices on both sides, it becomes a personal decision whether you want to use something made from animals.” he concludes.