Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion
Does "vegan" fashion always equal a win for the environment? In this exploration of the hidden stories behind materials such as wool and rayon, silk and polyester, and vegan leather alternatives, Alden Wicker—founder of EcoCult and expert on sustainable fashion—finds some inconvenient truths for the animal rights movement.
By ALDEN WICKER
Editor’s note: This article was updated from the original by the author for re-release in our Fall 2021 issue.
For most women like me, when a fine silk blouse catches our eye in a clothing store, we don’t think much about the worms that made the silk. If you do, here’s the story you will typically find: A few days after silkworms disappear inside their cocoons, right about the time they finish spinning, the little pods are collected and submerged in boiling water. To make a pound of raw silk, up to 5,000 worms must die.
To People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the nation’s leading animal-rights group, that’s a pretty destructive process for the cause of glamour. This is why PETA encourages consumers to buy “cruelty-free” silk alternatives like polyester and viscose (popularly known as rayon). Consumers have hardly needed PETA’s prodding. In a single decade, consumption of rayon doubled, rising to 5.2 million tons in 2015; meanwhile, the silk industry had declined to 202,000 metric tonnes by 2015, constituting less than 0.2 percent of the global textile market. Another victory for animal rights and the fight for more socially conscious consumerism, right?
Maybe—or maybe not. As with so many eco-conscious consumer choices, the issues involved in silk production are both elusive and multilayered. If we’re going to call ourselves conscious consumers, therefore, we have to calculate all aspects of the production process, and its consequences.
In the case of silk, let’s first look at the other way to make silk, which doesn’t kill the worms. For this kind of silk, called Peace or Ahimsa Silk, the pupa is allowed to grow into a moth, tear a hole in the cocoon, and crawl out into the light. But there’s a catch. Because that hole cuts what used to be a continuous strand of thread, the process yields a fabric with a nubbier, less shimmering texture, much like raw silk. It’s beautiful in its own way, but also double the cost. That can drive the retail price of a wedding dress, for example, up by more than $1,000.
To a bride who is committed to having a wedding dress that allowed moths to be “free and happy,” that price may feel worthwhile—as long as she can afford it. But she might want to look again at the Peace worm’s glorious beginnings. It turns out that if silkworms are allowed to emerge as moths, they live short and very difficult lives. Having been domesticated for thousands of years, bombyx mori are unable to fly, and cannot even eat. The males spend their one glorious day of moth-dom crawling across the ground to find and couple with a nearby female before dying. The females lay eggs over the next few days and then die as well. In any case, PETA opposes the use of Peace Silk simply because there is no certification process to ensure the worms weren’t mistreated.
To make rayon—a supposedly animal-friendly fabric—you have to harvest a large number of trees or bamboo, shred and dissolve the wood in a soup of carbon disulfide, dry the resulting glop, then spin it into semi-synthetic fibers. Workers exposed to the fumes from this process can suffer insanity, nerve damage, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Factories in China, Indonesia, and India expel its effluent straight into waterways, rendering formerly vibrant ecosystems completely dead.
Now, let’s look back at those worms that were put to death in boiling water.
Traditional southern Chinese silks are handmade in a closed-loop ecosystem, in which the silkworms that spin the superfine threads eat the leaves of mulberry trees planted by ponds, the fish in the ponds eat the worm poop, and in turn fertilize the mulberry trees. In Asia, which produces the lion’s share of silk, the boiled pupae are fried up and eaten as a low-carbon protein source—not a bad byproduct for a rapidly growing country badly in need of food. And certain types of silk (Jia¯o-chou and Xiang-yun-sha—see photos) are still dyed using nontoxic vegetable and mud dyes.
Stella McCartney offered a potential solution to the silkworm conundrum when she celebrated her brand’s collaboration with Bolt Threads, a vegan, bio-fabricated spider silk. It’s not clear when, or whether, this lab-grown silk will become available to all brands, not just luxury partnerships. If that happens, it might mean the end of traditional sericulture in favor of Bolt Threads factories. That’s great news for silkworms, but bad news for the people who raise them.
The myths and misunderstandings around this tiny worm—and the far-reaching effects—have been troubling me. In recent years, I’ve seen increasing activity by a group that might be called vegan readers—people so committed to animal nonviolence that they won’t eat or buy products made from animals. Despite representing a tiny slice of American consumers (2 percent, according to this Gallup poll), vegans wield an outsized clout in this nascent “conscious” marketplace.
According to data from the shopping platform Lyst, online searches for “vegan leather” increased 69 percent in 2020, with more than 33,000 searches per month, while interest in “faux leather” remained flat. “This data suggests that customers tend to respond more positively to the keyword ‘vegan’ rather than ‘faux,'” the report surmised.
In my own writing about ethical and sustainable fashion, which I’ve done for years, I have fallen into a pattern with vegan readers. When I feature a leather piece made by a fairly paid artisan, I get at least one interaction questioning my ethics. “Is the leather vegan? If not, it doesn’t seem very ethical,” read one typical response.
I often hear well-meaning people conflate “vegan” with terms like “ethical,” “sustainable,” or “eco-friendly,” as if they can all be used interchangeably. The unnecessary death of animals is of course a bad thing, but as we can see in the case of the silkworm, an animal’s death sometimes produces social and even environmental benefits. Those benefits are often extensive enough that they could be classified as ethical. And given the way clothing is made in today’s intertwined world, where available resources decrease every year and pollution increases—saving one animal often means killing or harming others.
According to the 2017 report Pulse of the Fashion Industry, by The Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda in Copenhagen, clothing makers emitted 1,715 million tons of CO2 in 2015, or about 5 percent of the year’s 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions. Fashion was responsible for 92 million tons of trash and other refuse that same year, representing 4 percent of the world’s waste, which is rising rapidly as we speak. (Of course, the fashion industry is also rife with human rights abuses, from child labor in Asia to sweatshops located right in Los Angeles. Consumers were shaken into rude awareness of these issues in 2013 when Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers.) Meanwhile, it has become clear we are in the midst of a sixth grand species extinction, as the oceans warm and acidify, habitats are destroyed, and climate change slowly renders more and more ecosystems inhospitable.
“We get a lot of criticism for carrying leather,” says David Dietz, founder of the popular ethical fashion e-commerce site Modavanti. “I’ve been called Hitler a few times.”
Animal rights advocates point to a graph in the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report showing that leather, wool, and silk have a much larger role in this damage than synthetic and semi-synthetic fabrics. Unfortunately, the graph excluded any measure of toxicity; if included, that might have shifted the results enormously. According to a 2006 report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, acrylic and rayon are the most toxic fabrics to produce, and silk the least toxic. (Leather was not included in this report.)
Cellulosic textiles like rayon are often billed as eco-friendly because they are made of plant materials (wood, in the case of rayon). But rayon’s manufacturing process is so toxic that it can no longer be manufactured 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.
What’s more, many pulp mills that supply these factories are located on the edge of endangered rainforests in Canada, the Amazon, and Indonesia. In the latter country, the mills are exacerbating the fragmentation and destruction of the last remaining habitat of orangutans and Sumatran tigers. A nonprofit organization called Canopy is diligently working to have rayon producers, and the whole fashion industry, commit to going rainforest-free. Unfortunately, aside from the branded lyocell textiles Modal and Tencel, from the Austrian company Lenzing, even rainforest-free certified, cellulosic textiles are still being manufactured in the same toxic manner.
Polyester might be even worse. Made from petroleum, polyester is essentially a plastic thread, which has increasingly infiltrated the world’s oceans and rivers. In a recent study that examined tap water samples in a dozen countries, 83 percent of those samples were contaminated with synthetic microfibers. These plastic microfibers attract contaminants and toxins while floating in the water, which are then consumed by marine life. One study showed microfibers in the guts of a third of the fish caught off the coast of California. Another showed that crabs that ingest synthetic fibers eat less, which stunts their growth.
“Calling something that is plastic ‘vegan’ to promote it is false advertising,” says Dory Benami, co-owner at the artisan-made footwear brands Fortress of Inca and Huma Blanco.
Over the last decade, in response to fashion’s ecological crisis, at least a half dozen traditional brands have been reorganized—and hundreds of new ones launched—to attack the problem on multiple fronts. There are now Fair Trade and artisan-made brands; brands that use organic cotton, silk, wool, and other natural materials; and multinationals like H&M, Levi Strauss, Nike, Adidas, and the luxury fashion conglomerate Kering, that are investing manpower and money into searching for more eco-friendly materials; reducing the environmental impact of what they make now; and chasing labor abuses out of their supply chains.
In this chaos of promises, a passionate vegan is an easy target for marketing manipulation. “One of the interesting things is that we don’t get as many purchases for organic cotton, which is vegan,” David Dietz, the founder of now-defunct sustainable fashion e-store Modavanti told me a few years back. “If it’s not labeled vegan, they ignore it. When we tag a t-shirt as vegan, sales will spike.” That’s not to say vegans are easy customers to please. Dietz also said vegans sent his company the most emails, with numerous questions about the particularities of each product, and numerous opinions. “We get a lot of criticism for carrying leather,” he said. “I’ve been called Hitler a few times.”
It would be nice if social consciousness were that simple. With eco-friendly or ethical issues, there’s a complex debate that is constantly evolving on what sustainability really means. To verify that something is nontoxic or ethical, a long chain of documentation is required. The fields of chemistry, agriculture, and supply chain management come into play. There are dozens of potential certifications to win, at varying degrees of trustworthiness. Who can expect the average consumer to keep up? “Ethical Shopping Is Nearly Impossible,” lamented Racked, a fashion news site.
To be fair, there are several vegan brands that strive for a reliable measure of sustainability in their materials—Bhava Shoes and HFS Collective being leading examples. But these small makers are vastly outnumbered by others, such as Lee Coren, Melissa Shoes, and BC Shoes, that use the vegan label as a marketing ploy to sell cheap shoes at high prices. Lulu’s, Zappos, and Amazon also 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.
“Calling something that is plastic ‘vegan’ to promote it is false advertising,” says Dory Benami, co-owner at the artisan-made footwear brands Fortress of Inca and Huma Blanco, which uses cow leather sourced from Peru, Argentina, and Chile that employs fairly paid shoemakers. “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.”
I fell for it myself. When I was new to the sustainability scene, I wrote frequently about vegan fashion, considering it a perfectly valid way to consider people, animals, and the planet when getting dressed—one-stop shopping for the ethically inclined. But as I dug deeper, I realized that most vegan fashion doesn’t actually minimize harm to animals. It only shifts harm away from photogenic, furry, domesticated animals—which if you consider their sheer numbers, are thriving—and spreads a wider, more insidious harm out to wild animals, many of which are endangered. Because the damage in the wild is subtle and long-term, it doesn’t cause visceral revulsion the way an undercover farm-animal-abuse exposé does. So it goes unnoticed.
Wool is renewable in the extreme, since the shearing process leaves the animal free to live another day and grow more. Yet PETA has put the wool industry in its crosshairs.
If there is any vegan textile that looks good next to its “natural” counterpart, it would be “vegan leather.” Raising livestock is an environmentally intensive process that uses tons of water; releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and is a primary driver of deforestation in Brazil. Furthermore, leather tanning is notoriously toxic. It requires heavy metals like chromium to render leather supple and luxurious, but these chemicals can be lethal if not carefully controlled and treated. Those safety measures have only recently been adopted in the U.S. and Europe, and are rare in developing countries. In the leather tanning district of Dhaka in Bangladesh, tanneries have poisoned much of the entire area—people, poultry, and aquatic life.
Viable alternatives to leather are out there, but they are still very much works in progress. You can buy shoes and purses made from Piñatex, a material made from pineapple leaves, but it has an unusual texture that most designers won’t want to use and is finished with non-biodegradable PLA. All other plant-based leathers have synthetic binders, a fact that companies go to great lengths not to share, as in the case of cactus leather from Mexico, which the startup Desserto says is “partly biodegradable.” A recent study also found that these vegan leathers have restricted substances in them. Various forms of lab-grown leather show promise (including making it out of mushrooms), but these are not commercially available beyond heavily marketed pilot projects.
In the meantime, we’re left with shoes made out of “pleather,” which is a synthetic polymer blend coated with plastic. The coating comes in two varieties: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The former is indeed eco-friendly(ish), but it’s expensive. The latter is cheaper but more toxic, off-gassing dioxins when in the hands of consumers.
Even if you’re willing to pay for eco-pleather, there’s the question of how long it lasts. “The reason you don’t want to use plastics in shoes is because it doesn’t breathe, which equals stench,” Benami says. “And once it rips, it’s gone. It doesn’t react as well as leather.”
Before we all throw up our hands, let’s look back at the hidden realities of traditional leather. As with the silkworm, boycotting leather could be seen as counterproductive, for four reasons.
First, almost all leather is an inevitable byproduct of today’s food industry. “No cow has ever been killed to make a pair of shoes,” says Benami. The price of a hide doesn’t justify raising an entire cow unless it is also sold for meat. With cheap sneakers replacing leather dress shoes, demand for leather has been plummeting and leather prices have fallen, while global demand for beef has been rising, resulting in a glut of cow hides. Those hides have to go somewhere, and if fashion doesn’t use them, then they will end up in the landfill or burned.
Second, it turns out that if livestock are raised more naturally—on dry grasslands where their kind grew up, instead of on cleared rainforests or in over-crowded feedlots—they can make arid land fertile. That change, along with innovations in livestock feed, also can reduce the methane gas they generate. Third, in many cases eating meat is a more efficient way to consume calories than depending only on plants; in fact, one study published by the University of California Press found that a pure vegan diet actually requires more land use than some vegetarian and omnivorous diets. And fourth, a good leather jacket, belt, or pair of shoes will last years, if not generations. Isn’t that how sustainability is supposed to work?
If there were any animal product that animal-rights advocates might support, you’d think it would be wool. It is renewable in the extreme, since the shearing process leaves the animal free to live another day and grow more. And it creates a high-performance textile that requires minimal processing, which means virtually no pollution.
Even better, wool has the potential to help the fashion industry produce “climate-positive fashion.” If raised in a way that mimics the movements of wild herbivores, sheep can play a large role reverting grasslands to their most natural state. This helps keep carbon in the soil instead of gassing off as carbon dioxide, thereby adding to global warming. The North Face brand is so taken with the potential of hyper-sustainable sheep ranches that it started testing sales for its climate-positive Cali Wool Beanie back in 2017. Stella McCartney, who has become a darling in the both the luxury world and celebrity vegan circles for refusing to use fur or leather in her designs, used wool to create the world’s first Gold Certified, Cradle to Cradle thread. This means the wool was made in a completely sustainable and nontoxic process, and can be composted at the end of its life.
Despite all this good news, PETA has put the wool industry in its crosshairs, sending out undercover workers looking for animal abuse by shearers. When they find examples, they ask local authorities to press criminal charges, and ask consumers to “save a sheep, don’t buy wool.”
One way PETA gets consumers’ attention is by highlighting the practice of mulesing, in which the loose folds of skin around a merino lamb’s butt are cut. Practiced only in Australia, it’s the only way (aside from regularly dousing the sheep with powerful chemicals) to prevent flystrike, a deadly disease in which blowflies lay eggs in the skins folds, which hatch into maggots and slowly eat the sheep alive. The industry is looking into selectively breeding sheep to not have the wrinkled skin, but it’s unclear when that grand re-engineering of the Australian flock will come to fruition.
How, then, would PETA want us to handle sheep? Apparently, not at all. “PETA is against wool as a whole,” says Christina Sewell, senior fashion campaigner at PETA. She makes no distinction between Australian wool from uncertified farms and ranches in the U.S., even those that are considered sustainable. Because shearers are paid by volume instead of the hour, PETA argues that this inevitably leads to shoddy work and animal abuses. Fair point, but there is one problem: If left unshorn, domesticated sheep will grow so much wool that they may suffer from heat stress, go wool-blind, and in rare cases, be unable to get up after lying down and die.
Even a giant like Patagonia, widely recognized as a leader in sustainable and ethical fashion issues, has not had the courage to stand up against PETA. Instead, Patagonia has gone out of its way to appease the organization and its supporters. It has rolled out a Traceable Down standard and helped develop a Responsible Wool standard; both painstakingly certify that no animals were harmed or abused in their production processes. Still, PETA continues to come at the company, releasing misleading video footage that shows a pregnant sheep roughly handled at a ranch that Patagonia had cut ties with before they released the video.
If indigenous people in developing countries stop hunting animals, what will they eat? Will the vegan community send them care packages of vitamin B and cookbooks that incorporate locally foraged legumes?
“Basically, we’re trying to make a point about the wool industry as a whole,” Sewell said when I asked her why PETA released the video. “Of course, we appreciate Patagonia’s efforts to try to do its best to treat the animals ‘well.’ But we want to use Patagonia as an example for all these other companies who claim to use humane wool. There is no humane wool.” PETA won’t stop, Sewell said, until Patagonia goes completely animal-free.
To Rebecca Burgess, Executive Director of Fibershed, a nonprofit that encourages the regenerative production of natural fibers, the confusion of perception and reality around wool is causing unnecessary damage. “There’s a lot of potential to support family farms,” she says. “In North America, a lot of these farms are the last holdout before a mall, a golf course, or McMansion comes in.” Once PETA discovers these farms, she says, “we have one little vocal minority trying to put them out of business.”
PETA has even gone after alpaca, a crucial economic lifeline to indigenous farmers in Peru and Bolivia that is well integrated into the ecosystems of these two countries. The organization released video footage of alpaca at the largest farm in Peru being roughly handled. Its answer was not to shift alpaca sourcing back to smallholder farmers, but to encourage consumers to switch to fossil-fuel-based alternatives, like acrylic.
No element of fashion has provoked more anger over the years than the use of animal fur. Some of the animal-rights movement’s earliest campaigns, dating back to the 1970s, involved actions against fur-wearing women (some of whom had their fine mink coats splashed with red paint). Animal rights activists won another victory in 2017, when Gucci announced it would be phasing real fur out of its collection. Gucci’s president, Marco Bizzarri, said the move demonstrated “our absolute commitment to making sustainability an intrinsic part of our business.”
It’s not difficult, of course, to make the case that a $41,000 embroidered mink coat is a luxury, and not worth that animal’s death. Just don’t ignore the rest of the story: First, that coat employed Italian artisans for 90 hours just to complete the intarsia embroidery. Second, the best mink today comes from the U.S. and Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, where the mink industry consists of highly regulated family farms. For the Danes, mink is sustainably integrated into the economy: the animals are fed fish bycatch and leftover meat from other industries, raised in clean and healthy environments, and are put down painlessly with carbon monoxide. All parts of the animal are used for animal feed and even biofuel—a modern update of the indigenous practice of respecting the animal by making good use of every part of it. In other words, phasing out mink harvesting might save animals, but it does nothing for sustainability. The two are not the same, and it’s high time people stop using one to sell the other.
In fact, if you stop to ponder those indigenous customs, questions only multiply. Should native people suddenly abandon their traditions in order to comply with Western vegans’ morals? 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? And 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?
“As a Western society, we should be careful about dictating to other communities about how best to sustain their lives,” says Tabitha St. Bernard, co-founder of responsible fashion label Livari. “There are people who just don’t have the luxury of not eating meat at all.” St. Bernard now lives in New York City, but her childhood in Trinidad and Tobago informs her work as a fashion activist. “I’m a woman of color and I grew up poor,” she says. “I welcome discussions with vegans about how to make our line more responsible, but Livari is not a vegan line.”
A few years ago, during New York Fashion Week, a Livari model walked the runway in a skirt made of fish leather, a byproduct of the native Amazon Pirarucu fish caught for food. When tanned in a chromium-free process for fashion, the fish leather fetches a higher price for villagers than using it for animal feed. “The fact that it’s creating an industry and helping people feed themselves is for me a priority,” St. Bernard says. But this argument did not sway an irate commenter on Instagram when I posted about it, who was of the mind that fish should never be used by humans, for fashion nor food.
Apparently, that sort of stand goes too far even for PETA. “We’re not here to pick a fight with indigenous people,” Sewell told me. Unfortunately, there is nothing in PETA’s campaign material to make that clear.
For my part, I wish I’d asked that reader about her vegan alternatives to silk, leather, and wool. Unless she has restricted her purchases to linen and hemp (the only two materials at this point that do almost no harm to animals or the environment), her closet is a portrait of hypocrisy. Her clothes and shoes are most likely made of some kind of injurious material, including various forms of plastic that will last only a few years in her closet but then last for hundreds of years (if not more than a thousand, we aren’t quite sure yet) in our landfills, rivers, and oceans. Meanwhile, that widely vilified fur coat gets passed down from grandmother to granddaughter. If you’re not lucky enough to be a recipient, you can probably find a gorgeous old leather jacket or a traditional wool fisherman’s sweater in any good vintage store.
Through the course of my conversation with Christina Sewell, PETA’s lead fashion campaigner, what most surprised me was how little she knew about the environmental effects of fashion. She was not aware, for example, of the wool that had been cradle-to-cradle certified, or classified as climate positive. She talked about cellulosic textiles shedding microfibers (they don’t; polyester does that), and she hadn’t ever heard of rayon’s toxic effluent, though she had plenty to say about the toxicity of leather tanning.
In many ways, it seems as though PETA cares only about animal agriculture, refusing to consider the knock-on effects of its campaigns. “Of course, inevitably, there will be some downsides to some vegan fibers, or all vegan fibers,” Sewell told me. “But any harmful effects from vegan materials, PETA stresses, are nothing compared to animal agriculture.”
I suspect there’s another element at work in PETA’s strategy. As we all embrace the new outrage economy (or just accept it), nuanced discussion and ideas for compromise get driven to the sidelines. Consciously or not, PETA is making good use of this new world. “We’re really proud,” Sewell says, “that PETA videos reached over one billion views in one year alone.”
Unfortunately, what’s lost in those inflammatory videos is any talk of the consequences of the organization’s message, and of the tradeoffs that real sustainability requires. And that’s a tragedy—not for the cows and chickens, but for the wild animals and underprivileged people who are at the whims of Westerners’ odd moral reasoning.