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.”
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk