Sparing Animals From Use as Clothing
Vegans strive to avoid using any animal products; as with food, the clothing industry has been an area in which animals are commonly used. The good news? We have other ways to dress. For a lighter impact on our planet (which is the animals’ home) consider, when possible, buying organic, natural fibres. Hemp and organic cotton are especially earth-friendly.
What are the most commonly found animal-based clothing materials? On this page, we’ll cover:
- Wool, cashmere and angora
- And finally: What to Do With the Leather, Wool, and Other Animal Products I Own?
- What About Gifts From People Who Don’t Know I’m Vegan?
This section needs no introduction. Many people already avoid fur products. To find out more, click here to visit the Fur section of the Friends of Animals website.
Fur trim seems increasingly common – and cheap. Although the piece of the pelt used on the item might be small, acceptance of this look means there’s a remarkable overall amount of fur in the market these days. Fur trim isn’t made from ‘scraps’ or waste; animals die specifically for these items as well.
Faux (fake) fur is also common today, and would be considered vegan. Yet some vegans will avoid it, as it has developed to the point where it can be difficult for some of us to tell the difference between fake and real fur. Many pelts are now cut and dyed to resemble the pop look of faux fur, further blurring the line. And arguably the fake-fur trend has led to the increased acceptance of fur as a fashion trend, and thus to higher sales of fur itself.
Leather is by far the most common animal product in clothing; it’s found in shoes, wallets, belts, gloves, jackets and many accessories.
Some might view leather as a mere ‘by-product’ of the beef industry, but 10% or more of the revenue generated from each slaughtered cow is from the skin. In a multi-billion dollar industry, that is by no means a drop in the bucket. Moreover, much leather comes from cows bred and raised specifically for their skin. Think about it: Leather is fur, with the hair removed.
Luckily, finding non-leather alternatives is an easy task these days, with several online shops catering specifically to the vegan market. Non-leather shoes are the norm now, non-leather work boots are available, and Pleather (a synthetic leather) is now at the point where characteristics are superior in many ways to animal skins, making wonderful jackets and shoes.
Occasionally the argument is made that leather is more environmentally sound than synthetics. The UN and others have pointed out that animal agribusiness emits more greenhouse gasses than the entire transport sector. Animal farms (including fur farms) are devastating our planet. And just visit a tannery, where leather is treated, to see just how toxic the tanning process is and consider the effects of harsh chemicals such as trichloroethylene on the environment and human health. An excellent book about the toxic effect of tanneries, including the connections to soil and water contamination, leukemia and birth defects, is Jonathan Harr’s book A Civil Action.
While synthetics are not without their environmental drawbacks, many companies do their best to minimize those drawbacks. Some companies, for example, use recycled materials to make their synthetic fleece products.
Avoiding items that are either real leather or resemble leather is a fashion statement in itself and will help reduce the popularity of those products. Where possible, support relatively sustainable, natural materials such as hemp, bamboo, and organic cotton. (Did you know that conventionally grown cotton is the crop that uses the most heavy applications of pesticides of any crop worldwide?) Click here for an example of a 100% hemp belt, from Livity Outernational. (When shopping for clothes, vegans read the tags -- be careful to avoid the hemp-wool blends. More on wool below.)
Also, watch out for bits of leather trim and tags on some clothing, like jeans. The Levi’s belt patch is synthetic, but you might find a leather patch on Lee and Wrangler jeans and some others. (Other tiny animal products that might show up include mother of pearl on buttons.)
Silk, often found in shirts and ties, is derived from the cocoons of silk worms. The worms are manipulated (and often they are boiled alive when companies harvest the silk). Vegans avoid silk easily, for alternatives abound. For example, scarves and cravats are made in a variety of materials. In Britain, click here to see an example of an organic cotton cravat. In North America, find vegan ties and scarves by clicking here (for Jaan J. satin ties) or here (for SolidColor Neckties scarves and ties).
Chicken, duck, goose and other bird feathers are used to make down, a common filler in jackets, blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows. Synthetics in all cases work admirably, and ought to be sought instead. Don’t be fooled into believing that down is an unwanted by-product of industry. Where profit can be made, it is, and by buying items made from down you’re supporting the industry.
Wool items are likely the most common that people will own, after leather. Found in suits and pullovers, mittens and scarves, wool has been promoted as synonymous with warm and comfortable. For sheep, it’s another story. Just as cows and, by extension, their calves are exploited for their milk, sheep are bred as things to be valued only for their wool. And at the end of their productive lives, sheep are sent off to slaughter.
In a remarkably successful marketing ploy, merino wool has been promoted in such a way as to leave people thinking that it’s some new type of wool. It’s really the same old wool that has been sold for centuries. It comes from sheep who, due to selective breeding for extra hair, wind up with more skin than is necessary for their bodies. The result is large folds of wrinkled skin in which insects can live. In order to alleviate this condition, portions of this excess skin around the tail are usually cut off in a process called mulesing. Thus, lambs have tails, and sheep don’t -- their tails are partially cut and the remaining portion skinned.
Cashmere is derived from the hair of a specific breed of goat and should be avoided by vegans. Angora wool is from the Angora rabbit. There is also an Angora goat, but the wool from this animal is called mohair. All should be avoided by vegans. People who claim “wool is natural” must not be one of the agricultural or craft workers suffering from exposure to organophosphate sheep dip! The chemicals have been linked to excessive tiredness, headaches, limb pains, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, mood changes, and suicidal thoughts, and have been implicated in the illnesses suffered by Gulf War soldiers. Moreover, wool means grazing and waste.
Alternatives are common; and if you sew or knit, you’ll find many synthetic and plant-based fibres available.
Many new vegans, or even those who have been vegan for a while, wonder what to do with old leather items, wool throw rugs, silk vests and so forth. Replacing items can be costly and seem wasteful. Vegans tend to weigh this consideration against the public message that that these things are acceptable to use and wear.
Even disposing of these can be a task, as giving them away keeps them ‘alive’ in the public eye. This is a personal decision. Some vegans have buried these items together in a respectful ceremony.
It’s inevitable that someone will offer you something made with animal products. Think about this in advance. It might seem awkward to discuss expected or potential gifts, but do make the effort to let relatives and friends know. First, it’ll be an educational discussion. And certainly it’s more difficult to later gently explain your appreciation for the kind thoughts and articulate how the item conflicts with your philosophy! And of course returning gifts can be a point of awkwardness or dismay for years. Some shops, however, allow refunds to come directly to a gift recipient without a receipt, in which case you can swap that pullover for the one you’d choose.