There is an increasing selection of fashionable and stylish clothing that does not contain animal products. Find out more about alternatives to animal-based materials such as silk, leather, and wool.
Those who are interested in a vegetarian/vegan way of life usually begin with changing their diet. But once that is done, there are various other areas of life that often involve animal products. Fashion, which is already a frequently debated topic, is one of those areas. While fur has long been frowned upon, there are other animal components in our clothing that many people may not be aware of.
What vegan fashion means
Clothing may not contain any animal products if it is to be considered vegan. As a consumer, it is important to take a close look and pay attention to the materials used to make a piece of clothing. If you want to be considerate not only of animals but of the environment as well, you should also favour renewable plant-based alternatives over fossil-based synthetic fibres. In addition to reducing the impact on animals and the environment, buying vegan clothing that is fairly produced and traded supports workers in the textile industry.
Labelling of garments
Currently, very few clothes carry a vegan label on the material itself. The only way to determine which materials have been used in an item of clothing is to check the label. If it is indicated that a garment includes non-textile components of animal origin, then the garment is definitely not vegan. If there is no clear indication, however, the best option is to contact the retailer or manufacturer directly.
Labelling of shoes in Europe
Under European law, shoes must bear a label, for which manufacturers use specific pictograms.1
Upper material, lining, and outsole are classified as leather, coated leather, textile (including wool, silk, fur), or other (e.g. rubber, plastic). The material specified on the label is the one that covers at least 80% of the surface area and accounts for 80% of the shoe’s volume.
The remaining materials are not represented by symbols, which means that one cannot rule out animal-based components at first glance. Adhesives, in particular, are often made from animal products – many shoes of animal-free brands are therefore sewn instead of glued. Imitation leather is not the only option for vegan shoes, however: other alternatives include cotton blends, mushroom and pineapple leather, wood, vegan felt, cork, and an algae-based foam.
Animal components that may be present in clothing
Leather is animal hide which is preserved by tanning. However, leather is not simply a by-product of the meat industry – much of the slaughter worldwide is carried out exclusively on behalf of the leather industry. Additionally, contemporary leather production is a poisonous business since industrially mass-produced leather is mostly tanned and treated with toxic chemicals.2 It’s also easy to overlook leather patches, which are often found on trousers and jackets.
The term ‘fur’ refers to clothes made from the very dense fur of certain animals (e.g. mink, foxes, cats, and dogs). For the most part, the animals are kept on fur farms in inappropriate conditions. In addition to physical suffering, the animals often exhibit negative behavioural patterns.3 Additionally, so-called fur animals generally experience agonizing deaths. Minks are usually gassed,4 while foxes and raccoon dogs are often killed with electric shocks.5 Regrettably, global demand for real fur has risen sharply in recent years.6
Australia has the largest share of the world’s sheep wool production.7 Shearing the sheep in order to acquire their wool not only results in massive amounts of stress for the animals but often also leads to injuries.8 During what the industry calls ‘mulesing’, skin flaps are cut out of the merino sheep’s rear, especially around the tail. This is done to prevent fly infestation, which can occur if the fur and skin are soiled with urine and/or faeces. This procedure is extremely painful – comparable to the intensity of castration. Local anaesthetic sprays are only used on approximately 60% of sheep that undergo mulesing.9
Cashmere wool (also known simply as cashmere) comes from the undercoat of the cashmere goat and is partly torn out of its fur with wire brushes without regard for the animal. Cashmere wool is very expensive and its wearers demand high standards. After shearing, the goats have a significantly higher mortality rate, especially during cold weather, due to the absence of their insulating coat.10
Angora is the long, soft fur of angora rabbits, 90% of which are farmed in China, where there are few laws and regulations concerning animal welfare. As a rule, animals in China are kept in cages that are too small for their species. Angora rabbits have to endure additional stress and great pain during the so-called harvesting of their fur. Because of such cruel practices as live plucking, well-known fashion retailers – including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, and H&M – have stopped using angora fibres in their products as of 2013.11
Mohair is the hair of the Angora goat. Most mohair comes from South Africa and the USA. Due to its light, velvety texture and its special shine, it is highly sought-after and much more expensive than sheep’s wool. Shortly before shearing, the goats are dipped in water to remove dust and dirt from the fur. In older goats, the procedure is repeated approximately every six months. Young goats experience the stress of the shearing process more often as their fur is particularly soft.
80% of the feathers used worldwide are produced in China and most come from geese and ducks.12 Feathers that are removed after slaughter – often from animals bred for the production of meat or eggs – are declared a by-product. In principle, the purchase of down products thus indirectly supports these industries. However, the feathers are often also removed from live animals. In some countries – including all European countries – live plucking is prohibited, but fencing is often allowed. This involves removing the feathers during the moulting period, when the feathers are naturally loose and are easily removed. However, not all the animals in a flock will be at the same stage of moulting, and, as such, some animals’ feathers will still not be loose, leading to quills and skin fragments being pulled out along with the feathers. The animals suffer from considerable stress during this procedure.13
Silkworms weave their cocoons from silk fibres. In order to use these fibres industrially, the caterpillars are boiled alive. About 3,000 caterpillars are killed in order to produce a pound of silk.14
Horn is a substance that consists of keratin-rich dead cells. Horns, hooves, and bird beaks all consist of horn. This material is mainly used for the production of buttons, jewellery or combs.
Nacre is extracted from the shells of mussels. It is not uncommon for the animals to be killed for this purpose, or even to die while they are being bred. It is used, for example, in jewellery, and decorative buttons.
Other animal components
Textile dyes may contain carmine produced from lice, indigotine made from snails, bone charcoal, and binding agents of animal origin. In addition, many adhesives for shoes and handbags contain animal ingredients. Animal glue usually consists of bones and/or skin, while the milk protein casein is also used to produce adhesives. Today, however, many manufacturers resort to inorganic adhesives because they are less soluble in water. In general, there is no obligation to label these substances and the only way to determine if an item contains any traces of animal products is to make contact with the manufacturer and ask them directly.
Vegan alternatives to animal ingredients
Biodegradable natural fibres
Cotton is considered the world’s most important raw material for textiles. The seed hairs of the capsule fruit are picked from the cotton plant and then spun into a yarn from which garments are made. For the sake of the environment, it is better to use organic cotton, which is grown without agricultural toxins (artificial fertilisers and pesticides).
Cork is particularly easy to care for. It is also breathable, splash-proof, and has a characteristic quirky look. Jackets, belts, wallets, bags, and shoes can be made of cork.
Hemp grows without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers because the plant can protect itself. Hemp clothing is very dirt-repellent and more durable, more absorbent, and warmer than cotton. Hemp is completely biodegradable and is especially suitable for people with allergies.
Linen is made from flax fibres, which require few pesticides or fertilisers for cultivation. It is one of the oldest cultivated textile fibres. Once it is woven into fabric, linen feels cool and fresh and is very tear-resistant. In addition, linen fabrics are lint-free and do not absorb odours as quickly as other fabrics. Linen is completely biodegradable and recyclable.
Lyocell is also a cellulose-based fibre, usually with wood pulp as the basis. However, the chemical process used for its production differs from, for example, the one used for viscose, and it is, above all, a more environmentally friendly fibre. Lyocell is often marketed under the brand name Tencel. It is biodegradable and recyclable.
Soy protein fibres are a by-product of the manufacturing process of soy products. As finished garments, they are similar in appearance to silk and as warm and comfortable as cashmere. Soy silk is biodegradable and relatively durable.
Viscose is produced by means of a chemical process based on natural cellulose, usually from bamboo, eucalyptus or beech wood. The properties of viscose include a pleasantly soft feel to the skin, similar to what you would expect from a mixture of cotton and silk, as well as complete biodegradability.
Non-Biodegradable Synthetic Fibers
Acrylic fibres consist mainly of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and have wool-like characteristics. They are warm, soft to the touch, and are crease-resistant. However, they should only be washed at a maximum temperature of 40 °C, as they are very sensitive to heat. Clothes often consist of a mixture of cotton and acrylic.
Artificial fur is manufactured using complex processes. The basic fabric is usually made from cotton and polyester, into which polyacrylic fibres are then woven and glued. The different colours and lengths of the individual ‘hairs’ make the ‘fur’ look deceptively real. Since labelling is often done incorrectly, there is still the risk of buying real fur instead of faux fur. Nowadays, the price is hardly an indication of whether a product is real or artificial. If you’re considering the purchase of fur-like goods, you should do the following tests: when blown on, real fur moves more easily and more finely in the air stream than artificial fur, which is usually more rigid. Below the undercoat, there is leather instead of a woven textile layer. If you pull out and burn a few hairs, real fur will smell like horn, while artificial fur melts and smells like plastic. (This should only be tested in a private setting and not at a store!)
Imitation leather consists of a mixture of different textile fabrics. In the past, these were usually coated with PVC, but nowadays the coating tends to be polyurethane. Imitation leather is cheaper than genuine leather and manufacturers can always guarantee consistent quality. Furthermore, there is hardly any difference compared to conventional leather.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is frequently used to make clothes. The fibres are very tear-resistant but poor at absorbing liquids, which is especially useful for sportswear. PET is often also blended with other materials.
Synthetic fibres pollute the environment
There is a downside to using synthetic fibres such as acrylic and polyester, since washing these fabrics releases microfibres into the wastewater and therefore into open waters. This poses a threat to many animal species and our environment. It is, therefore, best to choose the above-mentioned biodegradable alternatives or other plant-based materials.
The Munich-based label Nat-2 has developed the world’s first sneaker whose outer material is based on fair and sustainable wood. Additionally, an English company called VIVOBAREFOOT is bringing shoes to market that are made from an algae-based plastic. Last but not least, materials consisting of pineapple or eucalyptus leaves are also receiving attention as vegan leather alternatives. These can be used for a variety of products, such as shoes and bags. With vegan fashion on the rise, conscious consumers can look forward to a substantially wider selection of animal-free clothing in the future.
The V-Label is an international trademark for the labelling of vegetarian and vegan products. Through standardised criteria and regular inspections, it provides consumers with simple and reliable guidelines. Companies can use the V-Label to create transparency and clarity, and provide a guarantee that a product is vegan or vegetarian.
|↑1||European Parliament and the Council (2011): Textile fibre names and related labelling and marking of the fibre composition of textile products and repealing Council Directive 73/44/EEC and Directives 96/73/EC and 2008/121/EC, Online unter http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:02011R1007-20130701 [11.07.2017]|
|↑2||International Finance Corporation & World Bank Group (2007): Environmental, Health and Safety Guidelines for Tanning and Leather Finishing. Online Unter http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/de6c3d00488556f2bb14fb6a6515bb18/Final%2B-%2BTanning%2Band%2BLeather%2BFinishing.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&id=1323152378134 [19.07.2017]|
|↑3, ↑5||SCAHAW (2001): The Welfare of Animals Kept for Fur Production. Report of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare adopted on 12-13 December 2001. Online under http://www.furfreealliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/welfare_animals_kept_for_fur_production.pdf [11.07.2017].|
|↑4||H.T. Korhonen, P. Eskeli, J. Sepponen, and P. Toikkanen (2013): Individual and group euthanasia in farmed mink. Annals of Animal Science, 13(3): 623-63|
|↑6||Fur Europe (2016): European fur production up by 39 % since 2005. Online unter http://www.fureurope.eu/news/european-fur-production-up-by-39-since-2005/ [12.07.2017]|
|↑7||FAO & Common Fund for Commodities (2009): Proceedings of the Symposium on Natural Fibres – Rome 20. Oktober 2009. Online under ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/011/i0709e/i0709e.pdf [10.07.2017]|
|↑8||RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase (2015): What are the animal welfare issues with shearing of sheep? Online under http://kb.rspca.org.au/what-are-the-animal-welfare-issues-with-shearing-of-sheep_603.html [28.06.2017]|
|↑9||RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase (2016): What is mulesing and what are the alternatives? Online under http://kb.rspca.org.au/what-is-mulesing-and-what-are-the-alternatives_113.html [28.06.2017]|
|↑10||McGregor, B. (2001): Avoiding weather induced deaths of goats. Goat notes B19: Avoiding weather induced deaths of goats, pp. 76-77.|
|↑11||Gardetti, M. A. & S. S. Muthu (2015): Handbook of Sustainable Luxury Textiles and Fashion, Band 1, S. 117|
|↑12||American Down and Feather Council Certified (2017): Info for consumers. Online unter http://downandfeathercouncil.com/down-feather-byproduct.html [11.07.2017]|
|↑13||Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals (2011): Report of the 270th Session. Online unter http://www.animalwelfareintergroup.eu/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/minutes270.pdf [17.07.2017]|
|↑14||Muthu, S. S. & M. A. Gardetti (2016): Green Fashion: Environmental Footprints and Eco-design of Products and Processes. Singapore: Springer Science+Business Media, Vol. 2, S. 113|