Veganism (also known as whole-food veganism) doesn't just refer to fashion and clothing.
Rather, it's a way of life in which no products derived from animals or their exploitation are consumed. This way of life is adopted in connection with an ideology of what the relationship between humans and animals should be. More globally, veganism can be part of an action in defense of animal rights (Wikipedia, 2017).
Our first instinct is to think about adopting a vegan diet. In other words, a diet that excludes all traces of animals: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs and honey.
However, veganism takes a much more global approach. It excludes the consumption of any other product derived from animals, their exploitation or anything tested on them. This includes products made from beeswax, as well as cosmetics and medicines containing substances of animal origin or tested on animals.
When it comes to textiles, vegans exclude leather, fur, wool and silk.
The impact of livestock farming
In 2010, given the harmful effects of industrial livestock farming, the UN announced that the best way to protect the environment is to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Indeed, during my environmental studies we had access to numerous scientific reports demonstrating that livestock farming is one of the main causes of the most pressing environmental problems. These include global warming (18% of total greenhouse gas emissions), soil degradation, atmospheric and water pollution, and biodiversity loss (Espagnol and Leterme, 2010).
What's more, as the world's population grows, so does the quantity of animals destined for all forms of consumption. An FAO report indicates that grazing land occupies 26% of the earth's land surface, and that livestock account for around 20% of total terrestrial animal biomass.
The example of leather
In addition to the direct impact of livestock farming on the environment, leather processing is not without its traces. Tanneries use processes involving toxic metals (chromium) that are harmful both to workers' health and to the surrounding waterways and animal life. They therefore use large quantities of water and chemical compounds to shape, soften and dye the skins before marketing them.
Some countries have imposed regulations to minimize the impact of tanning. However, some companies have decided to relocate so as not to have to comply. This makes it all the more important to be vigilant about the origin of the desired article.
Is vegan fashion an ecological guarantee?
A key question arises here. Are vegan textiles eco-friendly? Are they more ecological than animal-based textiles? Take synthetic leather, for example. Although it contains no animal traces, in almost all cases it's made from petroleum! Although we haven't found any studies comparing the ecological impact of synthetic and natural leathers, we do know that anything made from petroleum is neither ecological nor sustainable. In both cases, and for different reasons, the ecological impact can be significant.
Secondly, while synthetic leathers are less expensive than animal leathers, they are also less resistant. For example, a bag made from animal leather can last for decades with minimal maintenance. On the other hand, a similar bag made from synthetic or artificial leather will wear out much more quickly. This means replacing it on a much more regular basis, and generating more petroleum-based waste.
However, some take between 500 and 1000 years to degrade! In recent years, therefore, research has been carried out into the creation and marketing of a plant-based synthetic leather. Indeed, Richard Wool, a research professor at the University of Delaware, has developed an eco-leather made from natural fibers such as flax and cotton, blended with corn, soy and other vegetable oils. The fibers produced are then assembled in several layers, and the result is very similar to animal leather, even if it is more resistant. It's not yet accessible to the average person, but it's certainly an avenue worth pursuing.
Also, there are some great vegan fashion alternatives that will use plastic bottles as a raw material instead of sourcing new plastic. We're talking about recycling here, and it's laudable from an ecological point of view. But it also raises questions about the long-term impact of such practices. Indeed, it has been shown that the use of plastic in clothing and accessories can lead to the appearance of plastic micro-particles in the oceans.
Cruelty-free, ecological textiles of animal origin
We've discussed the environmental impact of livestock farming, but leather isn't the only animal-sourced textile. There are much more sustainable animal-based textiles. Merino wool and organic silk are two examples. In both cases, they can be raised in an animal-friendly way. Both can carry Global Organic Textil Standard (GOTS) certification, the benchmark for ecological textiles.
In the case of merino wool, a single sheep can produce 8,000 km of wool yarn per year. The ecological impact of wool is limited, mainly due to the processing of the fiber and the pest control treatment of the animals. Wool has exceptional characteristics not found in natural vegan textiles.
La soie conventionnelle provient d'élevages dans lesquels les vers à soie sont tout d'abord gavés d'antibiotiques avant d'être tués au moment de récupérer le fil de soie.La soie bio est une innovation sur le marché du textile. Elle est produite dans un cadre biologique strict. Les mûriers destinés à nourrir les vers sont cultivés de manière durable, les vers à soie ne reçoivent pas de traitement antibiotique et le fil de soie est récupéré uniquement lorsque la chenille a quitté son cocon. Elle peut être faite avec de la soie sauvage ou en élevage.
Ultimately, vegan fashion or not, there's no guarantee that the finished product will be more ecological and sustainable. We've seen the example of leather, and could also have talked about the example of traditional cotton, which has a grandiose impact on the environment. In all cases, when buying a product or garment, a fundamental question should guide your purchase. Including animal cruelty, will your purchase be sustainable for you and for future generations?