For many consumers, ethics and sustainability in fashion centres around the use of animal by-products.
Animal by-products most used in fashion garments and accessories are:
- Feathers and Down
- Exotic Skins
In addition to the obvious and significant ethical issues surrounding the culling and mistreatment of animals for their hides, and being extremely land, water, and energy intensive, the meat and leather industry is one of the most environmentally harmful in the world. Meat and leather production is responsible for the emission of more manmade greenhouse gases (18%) than the global transportation industry (13%). The chemicals used in leather tanning make it one of the most toxic processes. Chrome, a known carcinogen, is used in vast measures, and the groundwater in the vicinity of leather tanneries in developing countries has been found to contain critically high concentrations of formaldehyde, lead, and even cyanide. This causes cancer and other fatal illnesses in the surrounding populations.
Furthermore, animal skins used for clothing and accessories are pumped with corrosive, toxic chemicals that prevent them from decomposing – the antithesis of what we would expect from natural resources. This impact is made only more severe by the deforestation associated with animal rearing that has resulted in the loss of important ecosystem services.
With growing ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the use of animal by-products in fashion, pioneering technology has allowed for the development of vegan* textile and fabric alternatives. It is acknowledged however, that these substitutes, even the plant-based textiles, are not always without environmental concerns. It thus comes down to constructing an ‘Environmental Profit and Loss’ to directly compare the impacts of synthetic alternatives to those of the ‘real thing’.
Synthetic alternatives include:
- Organic Cotton
- Vegan Leather
- Sustainably Certified Wood
- Recycled-Plastic Polyester
- Viscose (Rayon)
*Be wary of alternatives labeled as vegetarian, for they may use glues or other substances that use animal products.