The terms vegan, cruelty-free, sustainable, and green are thrown around flippantly in today’s society; used as a marketing tool, clickbait, or a gimmick. The terms have become popularized particularly in the fashion and beauty industries. This rise of environmental awareness and accountability in brands primarily concerned with aesthetics, as well as the industry in general, shows positive change towards a common concern for climate change and sustainable consumer practices. The issue comes in when brands only use these terms for ‘greenwashing’ and trend following purposes, using them with a shallow understanding of what they entail or conflating them with each other. Confusing the terms vegan, cruelty-free, and sustainable is an issue, as many garments are not always cruelty-free or humane in their entire lifecycle, especially in relation to the environment.
When we look at labels like vegan or cruelty-free, we usually assume that this means the product is not produced using animal testing nor animal products and is humane. However, in recent years the vegan and cruelty-free movement has become a part of the sustainability and environmentally-friendly movement. Brands market these terms interchangeably or together, leading people to assume they are synonymous and that vegan products are automatically sustainable products. This is far from the truth; when discussing veganism in the clothing and fashion industry we are looking at the materials used. The industry is moving away from animal-made fabrics like leather, crocodile, feathers, and furs, replacing these harmful materials with synthetic imitation materials. This is a move in the right direction for the industry, ending the pain and suffering animals go through in the production of clothing materials.
Brands like Oscar De La Renta, Stella McCartney, Gucci, Prada, and Versace have all made statements to end their relationship with fur and produce fur-free fashion. While this is an ethical and genuine move for most companies, such pledges can also come off as trendy and commercialized in some cases. During the 2021 MET Gala, Billie Eilish worked with Oscar De La Renta in promoting their new fur-free initiative, announcing she will only wear vegan-friendly brands going forward. This event spurred a lot of, in my opinion, performative activism by other fashion houses. Not to say they are not living up to their promises of veganism, but that many brands’ reasons for going cruelty-free were to appease the masses and not due to a belief in the fur-free and vegan movement.
The issue I find with vegan fashion as it trickles down from luxury brands to fast fashion, the latter of whom may not have been using animal skin before due to its price. The cruelty-free movement has inspired an increase in the use of synthetic fabrics. These synthetic fabrics from production to decomposition are harmful to the environment and ironically, animals, in tremendous ways. Materials like fake fur and fake leather are made of fibres like polyester and acrylic, which are essentially plastics. Meaning that the production of these materials can be the same or sometimes worse than processing animal skins, due to the emissions and toxic waste as a by-product. The lifespan of such materials is dependent on the quality, retailers like Shein sell products that do not have the same longevity of more upscale and expensive brands like Reformation. Though regardless of how long they last in your closet, most of these products will end up in a landfill and take hundreds of years to decompose while leaching plastics into our land and oceans. This leaching and decomposition affect the environment and the animals within that environment, microplastics in the ocean and soil destroy biodiversity and harm large populations of animals.
This is not to argue that we should continue to use animal products in the textile and fashion industry. It is instead to argue that there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to vegan and cruelty-free labels. We should not always assume that veganism is inherently better for the environment, as this is often not the case. Using animals in textiles still harms the environment due to the toxic dyes used to process it, which often runoff into local water supplies. Raising animals in general is strenuous on the environment. With large animals like cattle that produce leather, require large amounts of land and water, leading to deforestation and an increase in CO2 emissions, all of which are not sustainable practices. Without forgetting the obvious drawback of the inhumane treatment of animals, using animal products is in no way better for the environment than its synthetic counterpart.
The solution to this issue is not to debate whether to use vegan products or non-vegan products, but instead to focus on sustainable options. The race to discover sustainable materials is what many brands and companies are investing in right now, finding new materials that are plant-based and least harmful to the environment on either side of their life cycle. Materials like pineapple leather and mushroom-based silks are being developed, among other naturally sourced textiles that biodegrade, do not produce toxins, and do not use plastics. This is what the industry needs to be focusing on, stepping away from the shallow promise of vegan materials that continue to harm the earth. Instead, the industry’s attention should be put towards creating and investing in textile companies that are both vegan and sustainable while also utilizing fabrics made from recycled materials that put less strain on the environment. As brands are moving away from solely using new and unused materials, they are creating another possible solution to the issue. Buying back old pieces and reselling is both economically advantageous, as the resale market is booming, and an environmentally sound practice. Using old materials in new designs also drives home the sustainable sentiment of becoming more minimalist and the idea of repurposing to reduce waste.
It is unreasonable to ask the average consumer to do in-depth research on brands to find out if they are completely sustainable and to unpack all of their marketing practices. This is why some consensus on the terms vegan, cruelty-free, and sustainable needs to be reached. It should be the brands’ responsibility to inform the buyer of the details of their products, and to stop greenwashing their marketing campaigns to appeal to new trends. We have made the term vegan synonymous with eco-friendly in fashion. Re-education is required to clarify that sustainability and natural materials are what we should be focused on when looking at fashion from an environmental perspective. Cruelty-free is a useful label when we are looking to save and protect animals, however it does not mean that that product is necessarily saving the earth as well.