Can veganism still be considered a “trend?” It’s fair to argue that veganism has outgrown this status and has become a global movement of conscious and ethical consumerism. While veganism had commonly been associated solely with an animal-free diet, vegan cosmetics and clothing have now become a visible, important part of the equation. Veganism in fashion and beauty is a word that's generally applied to products made without any sort of animal input, be it animal-testing or fur, for instance. And while it is certain that vegan supply chains have, overall, a tremendously positive impact on animals and climate, it is equally fair to question whether vegan fashion is always as sustainable as it seems.
We at SANVT have done some research, and explain why vegan fashion is not always sustainable. Rather, we offer a reframing of the concept of vegan fashion, independent of its sustainability.
First things first: this article should in no way be understood as an attack or criticism of veganism. Quite the opposite! A vegan lifestyle is in most cases far more conscious, sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly than the average. As mentioned, veganism is much more than just plant-based food — which is by far the most climate-friendly way of eating. Being vegan means embracing a lifestyle where animals are simply not involved in our consumption and can often come to define a way of thinking that refuses to consider animals as inferior (and servants) to humans. This philosophy recognizes no animal suffering or abuse of nature for the sake of consumerism.
Coincidentally, veganism not only saves dozens of millions of animal lives, it also saves a tremendous amount of fresh water, prevents the emissions of greenhouse gases, the spread of chemicals in our soils, and much more. In this way, veganism – whether for the love of animals, for environmental reasons or even for health reasons – is always a fantastic way to make an impact.
Yet it’s not always black or white. Especially in fashion, vegan does not necessarily mean climate-friendly. After all, polyester is vegan too, right?
Here at a glance, why vegan fashion is not always sustainable:
- Vegan fashion does not necessarily have an environmentally friendly production process
- Vegan fashion can use synthetic materials and fabrics, which are harmful overall
- Vegan (leather) alternatives so far have not been durable
- Vegan is fair for animals, but not always fair for humans
(Vegan) Life in plastic, it's fantastic?
Vegan fashion is often associated with plastic. After all, products made of synthetic materials are often marketed as vegan in greenwashing campaigns. And technically, this is true: a polyester sweater contains no wool and therefore no animal product. Even PETA advises polyester instead of silk (which is made from silkworms). Just as shoes made of PVC or PU do not contain leather and therefore no animal product. That's why shoes that used to be simply synthetic leather are now marketed as fancy vegan leather shoes. But then is this fashion really vegan? That most certainly is, like so much else, in the eye of the beholder. Because when it comes to animal suffering, indeed no animals are tortured for those products. At least not directly.
Yet polyester sweaters release micro-plastics when being washed. This polluted water is increasingly threatening aquatic life. Not to mention that polyester is made from petroleum - and the impact that this has on the environment is quite self-explanatory. Same with the production of faux leather shoes: as they are made from PVC or PU, the process needs chemicals, plastics and dyes that pollute the groundwater, poisoning animals and entire ecosystems. Then, of course, there remains the question of how long these synthetic products take to decompose and what negative effects they then still have – long after our use – on nature and animals. In this technically-true scenario, "vegan fashion" should not even be labeled as vegan.
How durable is vegan fashion?
Another aspect of sustainability is of course the quality and longevity of a product. After all, what is the point of an organic vegan product if it only lasts for one season and needs to be replaced, thus perpetuating consumerism and the buying of more stuff? A good example for this is pineapple leather as an alternative to animal leather. Although we are not supporters of standard leather – for obvious reasons – it is considered an extremely durable, long-lasting and biodegradable product. Pineapple leather, on the other hand, is a material that is far less durable – even if its production is theoretically more ethical and environmentally friendly.
Luckily, plant-based leather alternatives are improving by the day! You can now find vegan leather made from grapes, cacti, and even mushrooms. Mushroom leather is proving to be a particularly promising leather alternative and is even being used for shoes and handbags by brands like Hermés and Adidas.
Does vegan mean fair?
Another question that remains is whether vegan fashion is fair? Of course it is fair for animals – and if the product is organic, it is also fair for the environment. But what about fair working conditions? After all, if a product is labeled as vegan because it contains no animal product, it doesn't necessarily mean that it was also produced in conditions that are socially acceptable. If we stand up for nature, we should also stand up for people. As a conclusion, besides the "vegan label", we recommend that you always look for additional seals that certify the product as sustainable and fair.
(Sustainable) Vegan Fashion: Our Definition
Many definitions explain that vegan clothing is primarily vegan if it is free of wool, leather and fur, but also horn, felt, down, mother-of-pearl and silk. Small things should also be taken into account, such as the brand patch on a pair of jeans, which is often made of leather. Again here, there’s more here than meets the eye: a pair of jeans, for example, should be considered environmentally harmful because of the immense water consumption and the toxic dyeing process. In short: the 'vegan' factors only cover part of the process.
In our humble opinion, fashion should therefore only be considered truly vegan when it not only excludes animal products but is also fairly produced and holistically eco-friendly. There are now a number of bio-based materials and plant-based silk, wool and leather alternatives that are sustainable in every aspect. And we expect (and hope) that these truly vegan alternatives are massively successful! You can read more about new technologies and bio-based materials here.
Between all the different labels like vegan, organic, fair, and sustainable, it's easy to lose track when it comes to sustainable fashion. Our conclusion is that vegan fashion alone – at least if you blindly trust the “vegan” label – isn’t always going to be eco-friendly. Fashion is a multifaceted industry with countless steps throughout the production chain that ought to be taken into account. But when combined with certifications and labels that additionally mark the product as fair and sustainable, vegan fashion is by far the most conscious and ethical choice for everyone. You can read about our own initiatives for more sustainability, fairer production and climate neutrality here.