Did I Mention My Trainers Are Vegan?

PETA-Approved is the ethical certification du jour, but is vegan fashion just another strain of greenwashing?

Scroll through the PETA website and you’ll see a whole host of brands proudly signed up to their vegan certification, from British mainstream retailer Miss Selfridge to Japanese fair trade fashion pioneer People Tree. Veganism is a hot topic, and fashion is, understandably, fanning the flames. In 2019, over 250,000 people worldwide pledged to join the Veganuary campaign. Meanwhile, the UK saw a 75% increase in products described as ‘vegan’ from 2018 to 2019, with the beauty and footwear sectors leading the charge.

For Nina Marenzi, founder of not-for-profit consultancy The Sustainable Angle, vegan fashion is an entrée to the complexities of sustainable fashion. Veganism has become synonymous with sustainability in common parlance, easier to digest than ideas of regenerative agriculture and conscious manufacturing. “It’s difficult to communicate sustainability,” says Nina. “But fashion and food connect us all.”

From an animal welfare perspective, vegan fashion is a step in the right direction, making it easier for dietary vegans to adopt a full-fledged vegan lifestyle. PETA-Approved products contain no leather, fur, wool, skin, exotic skins or any other animal-derived fabric. But does that mean they’re sustainable?

The strong presence of plastic in vegan products is a sore point. British supermarkets are required by law to charge for plastic bags, while single-use plastics such as straws and cotton buds will be banned in the UK from April 2020, and in Canada from 2021. Eight countries, including the US and Italy, have banned the production and sale of microbeads. But as plastic faces a public backlash elsewhere, it’s having a moment in fashion. In a bid to chime with sustainably-minded customers, many brands are swapping animal-derived fabrics like leather and fur for synthetic alternatives. According to sustainable consultancy Common Objective, synthetic fabrics, derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, now make up more than 65% of fibres used in the global textile and apparel industry.

New York-based journalist Sophia Li is keen to point out that vegan leather is not the only tactic employed by big businesses to divert attention from deeply-ingrained issues with sustainability: reusable coffee cups and canvas tote bags are equally surface-level changes that facilitate guilt-free consumption without actually altering much. Speaking at the Slow Factory x Study Hall symposium in London back in April, she said: “I don’t need my shampoo to be vegan. I need sustainability to be a reality.”

The particular brand of veganism that has led to fast fashion retailers selling vegan shoes and shampoo is often referred to as ‘white veganism’. It’s based on a view that veganism was invented in Britain in 1944, when the term was coined by The Vegan Society founder Donald Watson. But this overlooks the fact that eastern religions like Buddhism and Jainism have advocated vegetarian and vegan lifestyles for centuries. “The fast fashion industry as we know it is colonisation under a new name,” says fashion consultant Aja Barber. Research by British charity Oxfam shows that the richest 10% of people in the world produce 50% of carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% (mostly people of colour) produce just 10% but are worst hit by the effects.

The idea that brands can use sustainability to sell more clothes is inherently contradictory. Among the many brands trying to do so are Topshop, The Kooples and British retailer Marks & Spencer. The latter has a range of over 350 vegan shoes, spanning womenswear, menswear and children. But if a brand is encouraging fast fashion consumption, producing in factories where staff are overworked and underpaid, and using synthetic materials, are they really sustainable? The £19.50 or $25 price tag on a pair of vegan sandals certainly throws the supply chain into question.

However, any steps brands take to be more sustainable should be appreciated, no matter how small. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, leather from cows is almost three times as damaging to the environment as vegan leather, while wool is twice as harmful as polyester. Besides, sustainability takes time to implement, especially in established business models.

What’s worrying is when complacent companies use sustainability as a means to drive sales without any intention to develop their efforts further. Claire Bergkamp is Worldwide Sustainability & Innovation Director at Stella McCartney, one of the few luxury brands known for its long-term commitment to sustainable fashion. “It is great to communicate sustainability, but it cannot become a marketing tool,” she warns. “With environmental sustainability, a lot of it comes down to science. We need to approach this with rigour.”

Most commentators agree that veganism is not a long-term solution to the environmental crisis fashion faces, and nor is it viable in every community or corner of the world. Luxury conglomerate Kering is now advocating regenerative agriculture, meaning that it will develop a new network of farms that use grazing animals to restore biodiversity. In a similar vein, trend consultancy Stylus has suggested that tomorrow’s planet-positive diet will be “post-vegan”.

Photo: @project_stopshop by Elizabeth Illing

A few brands appear to have hit the sweet spot between animal welfare and environmental impact. Canadian sustainable accessories stalwart Matt & Nat has been committed to vegan design since its inception in 1995. Rather than rest on its laurels, the brand continuously invests in researching more sustainable fabrics: its archive contains recycled nylons, cardboard, rubber and cork. Since 2007, it has only produced linings made from 100% recycled plastic bottles.

Sneakers newcomer Allbirds sold more than one million pairs in its first two years. Farming merino wool from flocks in New Zealand (where sheep outnumber humans by six to one), Allbirds crafts breathable shoes that are simple, comfortable and sustainable. The brand works with ZQ Merino to ensure high standards of animal welfare, but also has vegan options made from TENCEL Lyocell and sugarcane.

So, before you sink your teeth into a PETA-approved spending spree, consider the reality of vegan fashion. It’s not easy being green, and brands need to work a lot harder.

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