For purposes in the following article regarding ethical fashion, this is how I define ‘natural,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘plastic’ materials. Natural materials are those that come from natural plant and animal sources, which will break down and return to the earth over time. Vegan materials do not come from animals or animal byproducts (i.e. leather, wool, silk, feathers, fur or skin), but instead are constructed of alternatives including plants, bark, stones, and plastic. Plastic means any material made from petroleum products that will not break down over time, but will break into smaller pieces and can remain in the environment for centuries.
I have always loved animals. When I was just a tot, I would draw a menagerie of animals in my free time while in elementary school. My teacher asked my mother about our ‘zoo’ of pets at home, she was shocked by my mother’s response: “we don’t have any pets.” I never liked the turkey on the table, the rabbit-fur coat my grandmother wore, or the aromatic leather stores in the mall.
As I grew up and had more experiences and education, I began to strive to make more sustainable and animal-friendly choices in my life (as much as I could control). I do not apply specific labels like ‘vegan’ or ‘animal activist’ to describe myself, however, I do prefer to make most earth-friendly choices that are available to me.
When I think about being friendly to the planet, I usually think of things that come from nature such as plants, rocks, and animals. Natural textiles and materials such as wool, cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, down feathers, and leather can all fully biodegrade over a period of time and eventually return back to the earth.
Surprisingly, the goals of being ‘natural’ and good to the earth, and being vegan and good to animals can sometimes appear to be at odds. I have had conflicting ideas myself, and I’m not even vegan. Vegans do not eat, wear or use any animals or products from animals.
Wool, furs, and leather (skins) have been worn as clothing and used as housing materials for centuries. When the first early human ancestors started hunting animals, they developed tools to scrape hides as a way to provide shelter. Then when they started losing their body hair (fur), they developed tools like the eye needle to make clothing. This was found to be especially true around 170,000 years ago with the second-to-last ice age when it would be too cold to survive without wearing animal furs and making shelters and blankets out of them.
For our early ancestors, materials made from animals were essential to survival. But now with the major increase in human population, the textile industry has grown significantly. There are many environmental problems that go along with the raising of animals for materials, such as heavy use of resources and waste-production. Not to mention that the chemicals used to tan leather are getting into waterways and soil, in addition to causing health problems to humans.
Now, with that in mind, I prefer to choose cotton, hemp or linen when I can, but they are not very warm in winter. Down coats are warm in the winter, but certain brands also inhumanely treat the geese and ducks they collect the feathers from.
In a similar vein, I love animals, and I don’t necessarily want to wear their skin. I don’t really want to wear a dead cow, and I definitely don’t want to support wool companies who source materials from sheep that were thrown, beaten and cut while their hair was being removed. At the same time, if wool was gathered gently and didn’t harm the sheep, I am personally fine with that. There are ways to get items made from more sustainable, small-scale, and humane sources. Companies like Splat and Co. treat their sheep humanely when gathering their wool for clothing and other items. This provides a natural textile option that may not be vegan, but it is biodegradable and better for the animals. So, you can love animals and wear their wool without feeling guilty. I like to know my wool socks came from happy sheep.
If you aspire to a completely vegan lifestyle, we now have the technology to make fabrics and textiles for clothing, accessories and other items in your life out of a variety of cruelty-free materials. Unfortunately, vegan materials aren’t always as eco-friendly as they seem. Cotton is extremely water-intensive, uses a lot of land and other resources to be produced. Plastic is also vegan – yet it comes from petroleum products. I won’t get into plastic yet; I will post about plastics later in this three-article series. Fortunately, there are many new vegan materials being produced now that are made using sustainably-sourced natural materials, rather than plastic, making them earth- and animal-friendly. So, yes, you can ‘have your coat and wear it too.’
Today, leather-like materials can be made from paper, cork, tree bark, recycled rubber, and waxed cotton; these are all vegan and eco-friendly materials. A new material called ‘coolstone leather’ is actually a sewable fabric made from slate stone! And did you know that apple fibre, pineapples, and mushrooms can all be turned into fabric?! Light-weight leather materials can also be made from the leaves of the hana plant (Agave cantala), as well as teak leaves!
The conditions of the planet, as well as our technology have changed so immensely, that we now have a choice in the material we wrap around our bodies and with which we cushion our furniture. You just have to decide what you want to prioritize. When it comes down to it, humans and animals couldn’t live here without our planet Earth. So I try to be as good to the earth as I can, and if it is good for the animals, that is great too!
If your values align, and your budget allows, you can have natural and/or vegan options. Unfortunately, the world’s economy and opportunities are not equal for everyone. I am not a wealthy person; I am a graduate student trying to take what I have learned and put that into action. I want to be kind to the animals, plants, soil, water and air. I depend on all of these things to survive. So, I have to weigh my options against my values and my expendable income. That seems to be what all of us have to do until circumstances change.
There are several things you can do to make these changes a reality in your life. No matter who you are, you can make eco-friendly choices. You can gift (upcycle) or donate your old or “outdated” clothes and items instead of throwing them away. There are also clothing recycling programs in certain cities. This will prevent more products from ending up in the landfill. You can also repair items instead of replacing them. Buy items that will last you a long time, instead of cheap items that wear out quickly and are designed for planned obsolescence. Of course, last but certainly not least, you can shop second-hand or accept hand-me-downs, and swap with friends and family. With all of these options, you can stick to your values for what material you choose, as well as helping prevent solid, landfill waste and resource waste to make new items. And being friendly to your bank account is a bonus! You can help the world, one step at a time.