"Producing vegan fashion can be just as harmful to the natural environment as traditional fashion." This is the opening quote from an article published in The Economist about the rise of vegan products in general. Veganism has gained an incredible amount of global support, especially over the past five years as more scientific reports, documentaries, magazines, and celebrities promote plant-based living as the solution to the climate crisis. And while it's true that industrial animal agriculture is wreaking havoc on the planet, there is an equal amount of evidence that veganism and vegan fashion specifically, is not as good as its reputation has led consumers to believe.
Stella McCartney, the luxury designer largely credited with promoting vegan fashion first, hosted her most recent in-person fashion show in March in Paris. The show featured her new vegan "leather" bags and was attended by animal rights activists, some of whom even walked in the show finale dressed in furry animal costumes. These head-to-toe cartoonish costumes may have pleased some animal lovers, but other show attendees were critical of the stunt. Bryanboy, a well-known fashion blogger, tweeted, "I highly doubt those costumes by animal rights group people were made from biodegradable fibers." This comment highlights the disconnect between what is considered vegan and animal-friendly and what is good for the environment. The easiest replacement for animal products in fashion is plastic — a material linked to the destructive fossil fuel industry and ocean pollution. The Stella McCartney non-leather bags showcased in March were made from polyurethane and polyester with a recycled polyester lining, all of which are synthetic materials resulting in physical pollution when discarded. The typical biodegradation timeline for polyester ranges from 20-200 years. Meanwhile, leather has a biodegradation timeline of 50 years, and fur can biodegrade even quicker, taking just six months to a few years. As physical pollution threatens human health and biodiversity, it's an important environmental issue that desperately needs to be controlled.
Speaking of biodiversity, maintaining it seems to be a forgotten cause in the vegan fashion movement. During the Stella McCartney show, activists dressed as cows, rabbits, foxes, and even an alligator. They did not dress up as bumblebees, monarch butterflies, sharks, or giraffes, all of which are species that are being threatened by climate change, poaching, and pollution. Since veganism focuses primarily on species that humans have domesticated instead of protecting natural ecosystems and the animals that we typically don't interact with but need to survive, vegan fashion can actually be causing more harm. Ecosystems will ultimately pay as fossil fuel companies and plastic manufacturers gain more money and power from the increasing use of synthetic materials like polyester. Loss of biodiversity is usually not evident to most of us and, therefore, often doesn't evoke the same emotion in humans as seeing a cow before slaughter. However, the damage to ecosystems is difficult to stop once it has started, and the consequences of biodiversity loss are far more severe than the consequences of industrial animal agriculture.
The good news is that fashion doesn't have to choose between unethically collected animal skins and synthetic look-a-likes, as there are alternatives to both. Plant-based leather is one example, but it remains an underdeveloped option. Ethically sourced leather and fur from invasive species is another solution, providing the biodegradability of animal-based materials while doing less damage to the environment. Unfortunately, no matter what solutions are brought forth as an alternative, brands continue to choose synthetic materials for most vegan products. In the end, that could hurt the vegan fashion movement and the environment.
Labeling anything "vegan" as automatically good for the planet is simplifying the issues facing the environment. Humans have done so much damage to the planet that is it no longer a simple fix to reverse course. The solution to fashion's materials dispute is not one fabric over another. It is working with the materials available and choosing the best option considering all the environmental factors. In some cases, animal skin may be the most environmentally sustainable choice. In other cases, recycled polyester could be the best material. But putting vegan fashion above other options reduces a brand's ability to make the most environmentally-friendly decision. Stella McCartney has done a lot of good for the animals and the planet, but her collections continue to put animal welfare above good for the environment. That is a short-sighted decision because those polyester bags may seem good now, but the effects of making them will come ultimately still harm animals down the road.