Vegan Fashion in the Clothing Industry

Sofia Kastrinou

As it is commonly known, people tend to consume a lot more these days in comparison with the past, in every aspect of life. The purchase of clothes is no exception. On the contrary, many people spend most of their money in order to buy new, fashionable clothes. We usually prefer to buy cheap, low-quality clothes because in this case we are given the opportunity to fill our wardrobes with a large amount of clothing items. Fast fashion brands have become a pestilence in modern society. Their influence on buyers’ willingness is huge. They tend to change the trends for profit reasons, and consumers tend to follow. 

In most cases, people do not have any idea about how clothing industries manufacture the pieces that we purchase and the resulting negative impact that this has on several aspects of life (environmental pollution, exploitation of animals and human beings etc.). Before we decide on a purchase, it is vital to know the production process of the clothes that we are buying and the consequences of our purchase habits. 

Animals’ exploitation

Animals have been suffering for years so the clothing industry can increase their profit. Most of the raw materials utilized for the manufacturing of clothes and shoes are derived from animals. Some representative examples are:

1) Wool, Cashmere, Shearling & Angora

Wool consists of the hair of a specific breed of sheep, merino sheep. Merino sheep are famous because they are covered with a very thick layer of wool. This special characteristic makes them the most exploited sheep in the clothing industry. They provide the latter with huge amounts of wool which leads to big profits. Lambs and other types of sheep can also be exploited for their wool but not as often as merino sheep. Angora derives from rabbit’s fur and cashmere is the hair from the cashmere goat. Shearling comes from lambs. It is a raw material that consists of the lamb’s skin with the wool still attached to it.

These animals are usually bred at big farms. It is claimed that the hair is removed painlessly from the animals and there are attempts to minimize or eliminate the suffering. This is not completely true. First of all, these animals are born and bred in captivity. They are deprived of their freedom and other privileges such as communicating with other animals, deciding on their place of living, etc. Secondly, there is a reason for the presence of the hair on these animals and its removal has negative consequences. For example, sheep grow wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. Lastly, despite the attempts, animals may suffer regardless in the end. For example, in order to prevent the growth of blow flies on the exposed skin of the sheep (after the removal of the wool), breeders cut pieces of skin or meat off their tail or back legs. This procedure is extremely painful and it is usually performed on the sheep without any previous anesthesia. 

2) Leather, Suede & Exotic Skins

Leather is made of nothing but the skin of several animals, such as cows, calves, horses, lambs, goats, pigs, cats and dogs. Suede is leather that comes from the underside skin of the same animals. According to European restrictions, the utilization of the skin of cats and dogs for the manufacturing of leather is forbidden. Nevertheless, there is no restriction for other animals and the clothing brands are not obligated to state from which animal the leather is made. Exotic animal skin, such as from snakes, crocodiles, alligators is processed to produce clothes, shoes, bags etc. Animal’s skin is treated with several chemicals for the production of usable clothes with intense colors. 

Most people think that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, but the truth is that billions of animals are dying annually only for their skin, for the sake of the leather industry. In addition, due to the needs of large-scale leather production, most of these animals are bred under unbearable conditions. This happens because usually, industries focus on profit, not animal welfare.

3) Fur

Fur is actually a coat, attached to the skin of animals such as bears, beavers, cats, chinchillas, dogs, foxes, minks, rabbits, raccoons and seals. The living conditions on fur farms are, in the best cases, bearable. Animals are usually kept in small cages which can literally drive them crazy. They usually fall into depression or behave abnormally (e.g. aggressively). Furthermore, the ways that they are murdered for their fur are cruel. Minks are gassed, while foxes and raccoons are usually electrocuted. If the electrocution is not successful, fur is removed from the animals while they are alive.

4) Silk 

Silk is a substance excreted from the silkworm, a butterfly larva. The silkworm can use these silk fibers to weave a cocoon. Most industries usually cook silkworms alive in order to kill the animal and retrieve the cocoon intact. Even if the cocoon is removed without murdering the silkworm, the process is so intense that the animals lose their ability to fly or eat normally. 

5) Feathers

Feathers are pulled from geese and ducks and sometimes chickens. In the clothing industry, they are usually used for insulation purposes, to make coats warm. They also serve as decorations. Feathers are usually treated as a by-product from the slaughter of geese and ducks for their meat. Sometimes, it is more effective though, to pluck these animals while they are alive.

Impact on other aspects of life 

All the different processes of making clothes have a great impact on the environment. Toxic chemicals, such as lead, are used by the fashion industry during several steps of the production of garments. These chemicals usually end up in the nearest river causing water pollution. In most cases, these rivers reach the sea which spreads the contamination globally. These toxic substances are also absorbed by the soil and cause soil degradation. Microfibers used during the process of clothes’ manufacturing are dumped into aquatic environments and negatively impact living organisms. The fashion industry also requires the consumption of large amounts of water. Moreover, as previously mentioned, fast fashion industries produce low-quality, cheap clothes to entice people to buy large amounts of clothes constantly. The result of this is the production of more textile waste each day, both from the clothing industry and from buyers. Factories producing garments all over the world are also generating a lot of greenhouse gases because of the energy consumed during the making of clothes. 

Fashion industries are known for constantly changing locations based on where the cost of workers is the lowest. These companies take advantage of the poverty of people that have no other choice than to work under poor conditions. They offer them jobs with very low salaries and long hours while providing the excuse that this kind of job is better than starving to death. It is commonly known that if the workers in one country start to fight for their rights, companies will move their production sites to another. Another big issue is that, in several cases, the fashion industry exploits children from poor countries by giving them a very low salary in exchange for their work.

What can we do?

The first thing that we have to consider is “do we actually need all the clothes that we buy”? If people all over the world start to buy less, then the fashion industry will produce less garments. Each and every individual should also reconsider before throwing away a piece of clothing. Clothes can be repaired or donated. All of these will contribute to the reduction in environmental pollution and the exploitation of humans and animals. 

Buyers can also make the change to more sustainable and vegan brands rather than fast fashion brands. Sustainable and vegan fashion brands are more expensive than fast fashion brands and have a limited number of clothing items, but the quality of their clothes is much higher in comparison with the clothes sold by the major brands. Therefore, a piece of clothing bought from sustainable and vegan brands will last longer than one bought from a major brand. 

The main goal of sustainable fashion brands is to minimize the impact of fashion on the environment in general, while vegan brands specifically try not to use raw materials that are derived from animals. On the contrary, they use vegan fabrics made of cotton, polyurethane, recycled polyester and nylon. Tree filaments, such as bamboo and ceiba tree, can also serve as raw materials. Also, they replace animal-furs with faux-furs made from vegan raw materials. Currently, there are a lot of plant-based leather garments made of pineapple fibers, apple peels or even mushrooms. Sustainable brands also try to use fewer materials of animal origin as possible. They both make attempts to provide healthy and decent working conditions to their employees.  

Several high-fashion and fast-fashion brands have partially tried to go vegan. They banned animal-furs and have tried to replace fabrics that are derived from animal sources with vegan ones. 

Some sustainable and vegan fashion brands that are worth a try are: 

Knickey that sells 100% organic cotton (no pesticides allowed) underwear for both women and men. They are eco-friendly and a healthy choice of underwear brand.                                                 

The classic T-shirt company with 100 % cotton T-shirts made in the USA. The cotton used is organic and derives from small farms in India.

Nudie jeans is based in Gothenburg, Sweden but has subsidiaries in other European countries and in the USA as well. Nudie jeans are made from 100% organic cotton.                                                                      

One of the main goals of these fashion companies is to produce garments of high-quality that will last longer, in their attempt to reduce the amount of clothes that are thrown away annually. The utilization of organic raw materials (organic cotton) contributes to the decrease in environmental contamination.

Some interesting initiatives:

  • Fashion Revolution/ Who made my clothes?

Fashion Revolution is a global movement that invites people and organizations from all over the world to collaborate in an attempt to change the way our clothes are sourced, produced, and consumed. In April 2020, they organized the Fashion Revolution Week: the #whomademyclothes campaign. During this week fashion industries were expected to respond with the hashtag #imadeyourclothes and reveal the materials and the processes used at every step during the production of their clothes. 

  • ECO-AGE/ The Green Carpet Fashion Awards

 ECO-AGE is a consultant agency that helps brands follow a more sustainable business strategy. Every year, ECO-AGE organizes the Green Carpet Challenge where celebrities are awarded for wearing eco-friendly designs on the red carpets. This event assists in bringing more glamour to sustainable and vegan fashion and in spreading the word about these fashion choices. 

Sources: The Classic T-Shirt Company, Knickey, Nudie Jeans Co, PETA, Shop Like You Give a Damn, Sustain Your Style