There's a tendency for shoppers to assume 'vegan' covers all their ethical bases, but it's more complicated than that.
Vegan fashion is a hot topic these days, and we've done our part on TreeHugger to promote it, featuring articles on vegan footwear and other clothing. As a writer, however, I've always covered these 'sustainable fashion' stories with an element of discomfort. While I dislike the cruelty of killing animals in order to dress ourselves, I also believe that the situation is never black and white.
Some of the vegan alternatives that are touted as being so ethical and sustainable have side-effects that are definitely not good for the environment and the wild animals that live there. Vegan fashion tends to put the wellbeing of animals over that of the artisans and farmers who provide the non-vegan materials. Some vegan fashion pieces are not built to the same standard of lasting quality, nor with materials that will age well, shortening their life span and raising yet more questions about what defines true sustainability.
So, it was with great interest that I stumbled across Alden Wicker's excellent article, titled "Eco-fashion's Animal Rights Delusion." Wicker addresses the very issues I've had with vegan fashion, arguing that it's dangerous to conflate 'vegan' with terms like 'ethical,' 'sustainable,' or 'eco-friendly.' They don't mean the same thing.
Take the first issue of the environmental repercussions of vegan fabrics. Rayon and polyester have largely replaced silk as a 'cruelty-free' alternative, as touted by PETA. But Wicker points out that rayon production is so toxic that it can no longer occur in the United States.
"To make rayon, you have to harvest a large number of trees or bamboo, shred and churn them into tiny pieces, dissolve the wood bits in a soup of carbon disulfide, then send these vats of viscous glop to a factory to be spun into semi-synthetic fibers. Workers exposed to the fumes emitted during this process can suffer insanity, nerve damage, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Factories in China, Indonesia and India expel the resulting effluent straight into waterways, rendering formerly vibrant ecosystems completely dead."
Polyester is petroleum-based plastic spun into fibers, and research has only just begun to reveal how these fabrics shed into waterways and contaminate marine species. These animals may not be the cute silkworms whose deaths by boiling water in order to make silk thread have been a rallying point for PETA, but they are still animals nonetheless, albeit less visible.
Wicker takes issue with the fact that a retailer need only slap a 'vegan' label onto clothing and suddenly it's flying off the shelves, thanks to vegans' steadfast commitments to their values (combined with a lack of comprehensive research):
"Lulu’s, Zappos, and Amazon have used their vegan sections as a dumping ground for throwaway shoes of dubious origins made by conventional brands. It might technically be vegan, but it’s basically fast fashion—cheap clothing made in Asia that will fall apart and be thrown away within one or two seasons—glossed over with a sheen of ethicality."
Dory Benami is a co-owner of artisanal footwear brands Fortress of Inca and Human Blanco, which use cow leather sourced from Peru, Argentina and Chile, and employ fairly paid shoemakers. She says:
“Calling something that is plastic 'vegan' to promote it is false advertising. The people who are taking advantage of this term aren’t doing it for the right reasons, they’re doing it to save money and play on their customers' emotions."
This leads to the question of which emotions are being aroused. Wicker concludes that it's all about shifting harm away from "photogenic, furry, domesticated animals -- which, if you consider their sheer numbers, are thriving," and spreading it wider and more insidiously among wild, often endangered animals.
It hardly seems fair. Nor does imposing Western vegan values on the many indigenous cultures that rely on the production of animal-sourced fabrics and materials to sustain themselves.
"Should the Nomadic Sami tribe in Scandinavia stop hunting reindeer and start making polyester-fill puffy coats? Should Chinese families stop making silk and start working in rayon factories? For that matter, should African shoemakers stop using leather from local springbok, nile perch, and overpopulated Kudu, and turn to Asian pleather? If they stop hunting these animals, what will they eat? Will the vegan community send them care packages of vitamin B and cookbooks that incorporate locally foraged legumes?"
There are so many fascinating and thought-provoking statements in Wicker's article that I highly recommend you read the whole thing, vegan or not, and take time to contemplate the numerous detailed examples. At the very least, it reveals the importance of assessing a term from all sides and questioning who or what is truly being affected by choosing it -- not to mention the dangers of adhering too strongly to a narrow ideology.