vegan fashion

Is Vegan Fashion Really Better For The Planet?

Is Vegan Fashion Really Better For The Planet?

Vogue Arabia, February 2019. Photo: Fernando Gomez
We’ve all heard the reasons why a vegan diet is better for the environment, but what about when it comes to fashion? Animal-derived materials such as leather, wool and silk have long been mainstays of the luxury fashion industry, but growing sustainability and ethical concerns have led to the rise in the popularity of vegan fashion in recent years.
So, is vegan fashion really better for the planet? When looking purely at the greenhouse gas emissions of animal-based materials compared to their vegan alternatives, the answer is generally yes. “The available lifecycle assessments (LCAs) do show that leather from cattle has higher GHG emissions than, say, polyester or cotton production,” Ashley Gill, senior director of standards and stakeholder engagement at materials non-profit Textile Exchange, tells Vogue. “Some of those emissions come from the methane from cows’ digestion, emissions from food production, and deforestation happening in the leather supply chain.”
It’s a similar story for wool and silk (the latter requires a vast amount of energy to produce) – both materials have a larger impact on global warming compared to synthetic alternatives such as polyester and acetate (often used as a replacement to silk), according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a tool that uses LCAs to measure the impacts of different materials.
These impact assessments don’t necessarily tell the whole story, however. “The LCAs don’t tend to capture that sometimes a leather good [for example] may, in most instances, last longer than something made from synthetic material,” Gill continues. Indeed, a 2018 study comparing the impact of four sweaters – made from wool, cotton, polycotton and acrylic – found that the wool sweater had the least impact when taking into account the use phase.
It’s also important to remember that many vegan alternatives often contain at least a degree of synthetics – with some so-called vegan leathers actually being 100 per cent plastic (hence the term pleather, which was commonly used to refer to “fake leather”). When it comes to materials like polyester, acrylic and acetate, which are often used as alternatives for wool and silk, there’s also the issue of microplastics being released into our waterways when you wash them, not to mention the fact that they’re derived from fossil fuels.
“Vegan does not equate to any direct sustainability outcome. It can in some instances, of course, have environmental benefits but that’s not the aim of the vegan definition,” Gill comments. “Something that is called vegan could be made from virgin plastic using highly toxic chemicals – that’s a really important thing to understand.”
Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp, whose eco-conscious sneaker brand offers both vegan and non-vegan products, agrees. “If you replace leather with plastic fabrics that come from petroleum, can you claim you are more ecological? If you follow the path of plastic, you end up drilling petroleum,” he says.

Even plant-based alternatives, such as Piñatex, made from pineapple waste, and Mylo, made from mushroom roots, contain some synthetics, leading to questions about what happens to these materials at the end of their life, considering they’re not biodegradable. The same applies to the coated cotton fabric used by Veja for its vegan trainers. “We creat[ed] an alternative to leather based on our Fairtrade and organic cotton,” Kopp continues. “CWL is composed of 60 per cent organic cotton and 2 per cent corn. The rest is still plastic but it is a great move forward.”

Of course, these materials are still in their infancy and will undoubtedly continue to improve (100 per cent plastic-free alternatives, such as Slow Factory’s Slowhide, are also in the works). It’s also worth noting that not all animal leather is biodegradable, depending on the tanning process used to treat the hide.
On the other hand, there are also growing efforts to make animal-based materials more sustainable, whether that’s via recycling fibres or sourcing fibres that have been produced using regenerative farming practices, such as natural grazing. Creating a more transparent supply chain will be crucial, as seen with the recent report linking leather to deforestation in the Amazon.
“I think in the next few years you will have a proper leather supply chain that is ticking the boxes, from the processing to traceability to high animal welfare,” Nina Marenzi, founder of non-profit The Sustainable Angle, which is behind the Future Fabrics Expo, comments. “We’re starting to think about how [materials] can actually have a positive impact. Shouldn’t we have materials that nurture the soil; that are helping to increase topsoil biodiversity? When you’re looking at that, then actually you’re having a different approach to these materials – [materials like] leather actually do have a role to play.”
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Everything You Need to Know About Buying Vegan Fashion

Everything You Need to Know About Buying Vegan Fashion

From researching the latest plant-based materials on the market to ensuring that the entire manufacturing process is actually eco-friendly, here are five things to look out for when shopping for vegan clothes.
Natalia Vodianova wearing Stella McCartney KOBA® Fur Free Fur. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

Given our increasing environmental and ethical concerns, it’s no wonder that Veganuary — a challenge to go vegan for the whole of January — is becoming increasingly popular. And while much of the focus is on food, there are plenty of other ways to live free of animal products, particularly when it comes to the contents of our wardrobes.
In fact, vegan fashion is something of a growing movement. Last April, Lyst reported that searches for ‘vegan leather’ had increased 69% year-on-year, while retail intelligence platform Edited suggested the pandemic could be behind an increased drive towards vegan items. (According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of all human pathogens and 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases originate from animals.)
“More and more consumers are seeking out both ethical and sustainable fashion options — and vegan is often the benchmark for both,” Annick Ireland, CEO and founder of online boutique Immaculate Vegan, tells Vogue. “Just as we’ve seen a real revolution in how people eat over the past few years, with huge growth in the plant-based food sector, we’re now seeing the same in vegan fashion.”
For those curious about what vegan fashion actually is and how to go about buying it, here’s everything you need to know.
1. Learn about vegan and non-vegan fabrics
Put simply, a vegan wardrobe is one that doesn’t include any silk, leather, wool, cashmere, feathers or fur. If the clothes feature any kind of animal byproduct, they’re not vegan. Make sure you keep an eye out for the details and trimmings. For example, Nudie Jeans are now vegan because the back patches are no longer real leather, but that might not be the case for other brands. Look for the Peta-approved vegan logo to ensure that any products you’re buying really are animal-free.

2. Make sure ‘vegan’ means sustainable
Avoiding animal products won’t automatically make your wardrobe better for the environment, though. Many products labelled vegan are made from fossil-fuel derived synthetics, which are difficult to break down and can harm our oceans.
“A lot of consumers see it as a daunting transition, from understanding the myriad materials that exist to making sure that the vegan alternative you’re buying is also sustainable,” says Ioanna Topouzoglou, founder of London-based vegan handbag brand Mashu. “It can be a lot to digest and navigate.” She suggests turning to directories such as Good on You, CoGo, and Mochni, which include sustainable vegan listings from various brands.
Seek transparency about the manufacturing processes. After all, if you’re going vegan, you probably care about more general ethical credentials, too. “Look at the fabrics, check where they’re made and dig a little deeper to find out about their sustainable supply chains.  Fortunately, many sites list this along with the product details,” says stylist Rebekah Roy, director of London’s first vegan fashion show Bare Fashion.
Courtesy of Pangaia

3. Research vegan-friendly alternative materials
A dress made out of seaweed, anyone? Becoming au fait with vegan fashion means digging into the science of textiles, from soybean cashmere to leather made from corn. Even linings such as goose or duck feathers in puffer jackets can be replaced with down made from flowers, as demonstrated recently by Pangaia.
Mariam Al Sibai FW20 made with Piñatex. Photo: Instagram/@mariamalsibai

One of the biggest challenges when shopping vegan is finding an eco-friendly alternative to leather, as much of the vegan leather currently out there is made from un-environmentally friendly virgin PVC (ie. plastic). Cult brand Nanushka is starting to use post-consumer and recycled polyester for its luxe vegan leather, but if you want to go entirely non-synthetic, there are plenty of options from the natural world as well. For her eponymous brand, Syrian-British designer Mariam Al Sibai works with innovative fabrics  with the most exciting being the Piñatex fabric (made from pineapple leaves) as a sustainable alternative to leather.
“One of the great things about vegan fashion is how many amazing innovative materials there are that are not only cruelty-free but also really sustainable and often made using waste products,” Ireland says. “For example, there’s Piñatex and apple leather (made from apple cores and leftover skin from apple harvests) — they provide an additional source of income for fruit farmers. There’s also cactus leather, which is high quality and uses very little water to grow.”
Oh, and if you’re looking for faux fur, which again is typically made from synthetics, check out the offerings from Maison Atia and House of Fluff, as well as Stella McCartney’s recently developed KOBA Fur-Free Fur — made from a mix of recycled polyester and plant products.
Stella McCartney KOBA® Fur Free Fur. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

4. Try buzzy smaller brands for innovative fabrics
Shopping vegan also offers the opportunity to discover smaller labels. “It’s wonderful to have a wardrobe full of Stella McCartney,” says Roy, “but it’s so worth adding some innovative young designers to your edit. At Bare Fashion, we featured [UCA Rochester graduate] Eirinn Hayhow, who’s showing at London Fashion Week in February.”
Alongside other vegan labels such as actor Rooney Mara’s Hiraeth, look out too for buzzy brands making use of innovative vegan materials. Start with Mara Hoffman’s dreamy silk-free dresses made from TENCEL (a textile derived from wood pulp, also loved by brands including Mother of Pearl and Reformation), and others including BITE Studios, Maggie Marilyn, and Collina Strada who all offer a rose-petal alternative to silk. Try Cossac for its specifically vegan knits, composed of cotton and recycled polyester.
Cossac. Photo: Erea Azurmendi

5. Don’t forget the accessories
Luckily, accessories provide particularly rich territory when it comes to vegan options right now.  If you’re looking for bags, check out the delectable wares at JW Pei, Poppy Lissiman and Ashoka Paris. “The industry is growing exponentially, and I’m sure it will become even easier to find alternatives at more accessible prices in the coming years,” says Topouzoglou, adding that she’s found it easier to find vegan shoes in recent years.

That’s thanks to vegan sneaker brands such as Veja and YATAY, as well as Emma Watson-approved shoe brand Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather. For luxury vegan heels, try London-based Pīferi, founded by former Jimmy Choo designer Alfredo Piferi, or Los Angeles-based Taylor + Thomas, while Spanish brand Mireia Playà is the go-to for recycled vegan boots.

Read Next: 5 Completely Vegan Skincare Brands to Try for Veganuary
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