A vegan diet is not only better for the animals but is also better for the environment. Animal farming is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a study from the University of Oxford, going vegan can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 73%!
But is vegan fashion better for the environment than clothing made from animals? The answer really depends on what environmental issues you’re looking at.
Is vegan fashion better for the environment?
If you’re only comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of animal-based materials like leather, silk, and wool to vegan alternatives like cotton, polyester, and acetate, then the vegan alternative is better for the environment.
Silk requires a lot of energy and water to produce. Most leather is treated with extremely harmful chemicals that pollute the land and water. Livestock farming has led to mass deforestation, water pollution, and climate change. In order to reduce the number of methane emissions, which makes up 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the New Zealand government is trying to tax cow and sheep farmers for the amount of methane gas their farms produce!
This chart from the Higg Sustainability Index is a helpful guide to see which textiles emit the least to most greenhouse gas emissions. The Higg Index is a part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which helps global brands and manufacturers improve their sustainability by finding an eco-friendly alternative for the apparel they design and produce. The chart shows that alpaca wool, cow leather, and silk release the highest amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Also ranked high on that list is the conventional production of cotton which is ranked higher than wool according to the Higg Index. Mass-produced cotton emits a lot of greenhouse gas due to the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and harmful chemicals to boost production. Commercial cotton also uses a lot of water and causes water and soil pollution. And this is just the environmental impact of growing cotton. The process of turning raw cotton into clothing is also very toxic for the environment, people, and animals.
Even though mass-produced cotton is responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gas, it does biodegrade, so that’s another thing to keep in mind when looking at whether or not a textile is actually sustainable. Even though synthetic vegan fabrics like PVC leather, spandex, and nylon emit fewer greenhouse gases than all animal-based materials, they can take 20-200 years or more to decompose.
There’s also the issue of microplastics which are tiny plastic particles that pollute the ocean, soil, and even our drinking water. It causes serious health risks to animals and humans.
New Scientist reported that “Polyester fibres make up nearly three-quarters of microplastic pollution in the Arctic and probably come from textile manufacturing and household laundry.” Nylon, acrylic, and all other synthetic fibers also contain plastic. The only way to avoid causing microplastic pollution is to buy 100% natural textiles.
Organic cotton is a much more eco-friendly alternative to mass-produced cotton. Organic cotton farmers use organic soil instead of synthetic soil. They also use GMO-free seeds and natural harvesting practices. Organic cotton clothing is produced using natural whitening and non-toxic dyes.
Hemp is also another vegan, eco-friendly fabric that is 100% biodegradable as long as it’s not blended with synthetic materials. Hemp has very low carbon emissions and can grow easily without the need for harmful chemicals such as pesticides. Hemp can grow anywhere and can even replenish the soil!
Best of all, hemp is an extremely diverse plant and can be converted into a variety of textiles including hemp silk, hemp wool, and even hemp leather. The only downside to hemp is that hemp production is still in its early stages, so it’s more difficult to find 100% pure hemp clothing. A lot of hemp clothing is blended with organic cotton, so it is still vegan and biodegradable.
Due to the criminalization of marijuana in the 1930s, hemp has been illegal in many parts of the world. But as more countries like the U.S. and Thailand legalize cannabis, more people are exploring the benefits of this wonderful plant which can be made into practically anything, including fabric, food, and fuel!
There has been a lot of recent innovation in the vegan leather industry with vegan leather being made from natural materials like pineapple, mushrooms, and apples. This is a much more eco-friendly alternative to the more common plastic leather that is available and is more eco-friendly than animal leather.
The downside is these innovative eco-friendly vegan leather companies mix their natural material with synthetic material, making it less biodegradable.
Piñatex, which is a vegan pineapple leather material, is only 80% pineapple and 20% PLA. PLA is a vegetable-based plastic material. They have done their best to make their leather as sustainable as possible but it’s still not as eco-friendly as cotton or hemp.
Mylo, which makes vegan mushroom leather, states in their FAQ that they are “not 100% plastic-free.” Like Piñatex, they are also working on finding a formula that is completely biodegradable.
Not perfect- but progress…
There isn’t a perfect, 100% eco-friendly textile available yet, but the vegan sustainable clothing industry is still in its early stages and is still more ethical than animal-based materials. The best way to help move this technology along so that we have easier and cheaper access to vegan, sustainable, eco-friendly, and fair-trade fashion is to create a demand and fund the small businesses that are focusing on vegan, eco-friendly fashion.
It’s important to give money to small businesses instead of big companies that claim to be eco-friendly. “Greenwashing” has been a huge problem since the demand for sustainable products has increased in recent years. Huge brands like Zara, H&M, and Nike have released lines of eco-friendly products but these supposed eco-friendly products are a small percentage of what they sell. These three brands also produce huge amounts of pollution, carbon emissions, and tons of fashion waste per year. Not to mention most (if not all) of their garment workers are treated horribly and paid slave wages.
When it comes to vegan fashion and sustainability, it’s important to do your research on different brands and fabrics to see which one you think is the most ethical and environmentally friendly. Eco-friendly alternatives tend to be more expensive as well, so that’s a big reason why sustainable fashion isn’t as easily available as it should be, but it’s getting there.