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Factory farming is usually the most obvious problem that confronts new vegans when it comes to animal welfare, so it’s common to concentrate on diet when first exploring veganism (this was certaimnly my path). But have you ever stopped to consider the hidden suffering of animals used in fashion?

In the documentary film SLAY, Melanie Joy discusses how animals quite literally ‘disappear’ into items of clothing, meaning that a lot of the time, we’re not even aware of the grisly reality of their treatment in the fashion industry.

However, when we view animals as a commodity – a means to an end to satisfy our own needs – it’s no surprise that the industry is largely unregulated and inherently cruel. Every year billions of animals are raised, trapped, mutilated and slaughtered in horrific conditions, all in the name of fashion. 

So if you’re stuck between that cute cashmere sweater or silk blouse, then it’s time to take a look at the suffering behind your everyday clothing. When you’re fully informed, you’ll hopefully be persuaded to make different choices that support a kinder future.

Faux fur coats in a luxury storeIsn’t It Natural to Use Animals in Clothing?

It’s an understandable question – especially when we grow up with such positive narratives surrounding animal products in clothing. ‘Real leather’ is often synonymous with the highest quality, and wool is celebrated as a natural and endlessly renewable by-product that humans have been using for centuries.

When I think about our ancestors using animals in this way, it conjures up primitive images of hunter-gatherers using leather hides and fur pelts to keep themselves warm.

But this romanticised vision is far from the truth of animals in the fashion industry today.

Companies are always looking to maximize profits, so we now live in a world of supply to meet demand on a mass scale. We have cultivated a speciesist view that animals exist to meet our needs, conveniently forgetting that they are sentient beings with their own rights to life and freedom. This can only lead to exploitation and suffering.

The real problem is that we don’t see the journey of our clothes (a bit like our food). We just see a beautiful item of clothing in an aspirational shop, and therefore the problem is conveniently out of sight, out of mind.

We say we are a nation of animal lovers and dote on our pets, but every time we buy a piece of clothing that contains animals, we are silently complicit in their systematic abuse.

Just like the food we put in our mouths, it is our responsibility to question the materials we wear against our skin. Unlike our ancestors who used animals to survive, we are fortunate enough to have the luxury of choice in the 21st century. It’s high time to choose kindness over cruelty and move our shopping habits into alignment with our values.

Materials Explained: Why Animals Don’t Belong in Your Clothing

Now that we’ve briefly discussed some of the issues at hand, let’s take a look in more detail at how our clothes are made and the suffering involved in different fabrics. This is why animals don’t belong in the fashion industry.

Leather

Cruelty of the leather industryWhere does leather come from?

According to PETA, more than a billion animals are killed for their skins each year. This is typically cattle, but can also include a whole host of other animals, including alligators, goats, horses, kangaroos, pigs and snakes (to name just a handful). The animal skins then undergo a heavy chemical tanning process.

There is a popular belief that leather is simply a by-product of the meat industry. While it is commonly justified that using the skins of animals prevents waste, the skins and hides are often the most profitable part of the animal (fetching more money than the meat), so the leather trade alone is very lucrative and a multi-billion dollar industry in itself.

Also note that despite many companies claiming that their leather goods are ‘Made in Italy’, this luxury stamp of approval is often misleading. The raw hide itself most likely still came from India or China.

Why is the leather industry cruel?

The leather industry employs various methods, including hunting, caging, farming and skinning alive. Even factory farming – arguably the kindest of these methods – means a life of confinement, cramped conditions and abusive treatment at the hands of workers.

The majority of the world’s leather is exported from China and India. In India, it is typical for cows’ tails to be broken and tobacco rubbed in their eyes, as they are brutally forced to walk long distances to slaughterhouses (check out Earthlings for a sobering watch). China has no animal welfare legislation.

When we look past the suffering of animals, the leather trade is harsh on people and planet, too. The toxic chemicals required to tan leather lead to water and soil pollution, plus long-term chronic health conditions for some of the world’s poorest workers.

What are the ethical alternatives to leather?

Leather is a wardrobe staple that is found everywhere in clothing and accessories – from bags to boots, right down to the toggle on your washbag. To make things easier, I’ve put together a list of my favourite vegan leather bag brands. And for vegan leather gifts, check out my suggestions for him and her.

Fortunately, there has been lots of development with new alternatives in recent years, so there are now plenty of quality, low-impact vegan leathers that don’t involve cheap PVC. Look out for cork, leaf, and innovative fruit leathers like Piñatex (made from pineapples) and AppleSkin (from food industry waste).

Wool

Animals in the fashion industry - sheep's woolWhere does wool come from?

You’re probably aware that wool typically comes from sheep, but did you know that more than 95% of it comes from global mass production? Australia is the world’s largest producer, exporting roughly 30% of all wool used worldwide.

Wool is arguably one of the most misunderstood products in fashion. Many people believe that the act of shearing sheep shouldn’t injure them or cause long-term harm. However, there are many problems with the wool industry.

What is wrong with wool production?

Sadly, wool isn’t typically produced under ethical conditions. Within the first few weeks of life, lambs’ ears are hole-punched, their tails are chopped off, and they undergo a painful and often ineffective procedure called ‘mulesing’. Designed to reduce flystrike (a particular problem in hot climates), it involves cutting out flesh from a sheep’s buttocks.

They are regularly kept in flocks that consist of thousands of sheep, meaning that they can’t be properly looked after in these numbers. Each year, hundreds of lambs perish from starvation or exposure, and older sheep die from illness, neglect and lack of shelter. The humane solution would be to reduce flock sizes, but instead more sheep are bred to allow for these margins.

Moreover, shearing is very time-sensitive to meet the seasonal demands of the fashion industry, so profits often come before animal welfare with sheep being shorn prematurely. Many sheep will die from exposure to the elements. Shearers are also paid by volume, which means that work is rushed with little regard for animal welfare. PETA has uncovered all sorts of horrific treatment.

When wool yield declines, sheep are sold to slaughter, with a cruel live export of millions of sheep each year to Middle Eastern and Asian nations.

Wool is widely believed to be an eco-friendly material, but it has a huge impact on the environment, causing greenhouse gases, waste, as well as water and soil pollution.

What are the cruelty-free alternatives to wool?

Wool is often relied on as a winter wardrobe staple, but there are plenty of cruelty-free and sustainable alternatives. Replace wool with Tencel, organic cotton or bamboo.

Fur Farming & Exotic Skins

Animals used in fashion - fur farmingWhat animals are killed for their luxury fur and skins?

Many animals are raised in captivity and slaughtered on fur farms. Alternatively, wild animals are trapped and killed for their coveted fur and skin. No matter the method, what’s clear is that all of these animals suffer, including alligators, snakes, crocodiles, mink, foxes, lynx, coyotes, goats, rabbits, cats, dogs, plus many more.

Why are these materials problematic?

In recent years, fur’s reputation has plummeted thanks to campaigns by PETA and animal rights organizations. Increasing numbers of fashion designers and major brands have now moved away from fur, with many European countries having banned fur farming altogether. A YouGov poll in 2020 found that 93% of Brits reject wearing animal fur and 72% support a complete ban. However, the global fur industry is still worth billions.

The dressing of animal fur is such a toxic process that it is now ranked in the world’s top five industries for hazardous metal pollution.

Fur Farms

According to PETA, 85% of the fur trade’s skins come from animals raised on fur farms. Confined in cramped battery cages, they live in squalid conditions with no room to carry out their natural behaviours. Their short lives usually come to an end via a variety of painful means, whether it’s anal electrocution, gassing, beating, strangulation or neck breaking.

80% of fur is produced in China, where there are zero animal protection laws or legislation. It is common practice here for animals to be skinned alive.

Fur Trappers

When animals aren’t being bred on fur farms, wild animals are often trapped and killed. This method is particularly inhumane, being highly distressing and painful for animals. Sometimes left to suffer for days, many animals will die from exposure or injury before they can be put out of their misery.

Fashion continues to threaten many endangered species with extinction.

What are the animal-friendly alternatives to fur?

Faux fur often relies on oil so is not the best alternative to real fur. Check out some of these innovative options.

Down

Geese used in the down feather industryWhere does down come from?

Down is collected from geese, ducks and swans, and refers to the soft layer of feathers closest to the bird’s skin. They can be found beneath the tougher layer of outer feathers, and are particularly prized because they don’t contain any sharp quills.

Why should you avoid down in your clothing?

Hailed as a low-impact, renewable resource by the fashion industry, down is a particularly popular lining in coats that can help to insulate against freezing temperatures.

Look into things a little further though, and it’s not quite so rosy.

In order to gather down, feathers are plucked from birds either whilst they’re still alive or once they’ve been slaughtered. Unfortunately, due to demand and because feathers grow back, the majority of down is produced by live plucking. This is carried out with no pain relief, causing birds to sometimes break their beaks as they struggle to escape. The feathers are ripped from their bodies, leaving them bleeding and in pain.

PETA estimates that one farm can undergo up to a staggering quarter of a million live pluckings per year.

Up to 80% of down is produced in China, where there are no animal welfare laws. Some suppliers that are certified by the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) have been uncovered to still be sourcing live-plucked down. You also run the risk of inadvertently supporting the foie gras industry.

What are some cosy alternatives to down?

Patagonia and some other ethical brands have pledged not to use live-plucked down, instead opting for recycled or traceable feathers. However, this can be difficult to guarantee in supply chains. The safest bet is to opt for synthetic, hypoallergenic down alternatives like Polarguard or PrimaLoft.

Silk

Silkworm cocoons - how is silk made?Where does silk come from?

Silk has been prized as one of the finest fabrics for over thousands of years. But it is the humble silkworm that we have to thank for silk textiles – in particular, the mulberry silkworm (aka ‘Bombyx Mori’) that is native to China.

Silkworms spin intricate cocoons before metamorphosis into silk moths. It is these threads that are extracted by boiling the cocoons. The threads are then treated and spun into the high-end and expensive fabric we know as silk.

Why is silk production harmful?

It’s easy to dismiss the cruelty of the silk industry because… well, they’re just worms, right?!

It depends on your view and whether you care for animals both big and small, but silk production is still responsible for the suffering and killing of sensitive beings that instinctively withdraw from pain.

Despite silk’s sexy reputation, the reality of how it is made is far from civilised. Moths chew their way out of their cocoons which damages much of the thread, meaning that it is standard practice for silkworms to be killed in boiling water with the pupae still inside.

Hundreds of thousands of silkworms die each year to make silk, with PETA revealing that it takes 6,600 silkworms to produce just one kilogram of silk.

Much of the world’s silk is also produced in poorer countries and heavily associated with child labour. Children must regularly put their hands into vats of boiling water, meaning that their skin becomes raw and infected.

What are some super-soft alternatives to silk?

Ahimsa silk or ‘peace silk’ is often suggested as a more ethical alternative to traditional silk, as it is made from a silkworm’s cocoon after it has emerged as a moth. However, there is still no legislation so it remains problematic.

Fortunately, there are up-and-coming options like citrus fibre or vegan spider silk.

You Can Choose to Boycott Animal Cruelty in the Fashion Industry

I know that this article might have been a difficult read, and it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed when these materials are normalised and seemingly everywhere. But animal cruelty is only enabled when there is demand for a product, so the good news is that you can choose to spend your money elsewhere and be a trailblazer for change.

I’ve already spoken at length about the problems with fast fashion, so remember to embrace slow fashion – purchasing less and better quality.

If you want to learn more, then read up on sustainable vegan fabrics and do your bit to support ethical vegan clothing brands. The Good On You app is also a great resource for checking a company’s ethical rating when it comes to animals. Oh, and if you’re wondering what to do with all your leather and wool items once you’ve gone vegan, then I’ve got you covered.

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Animals used in the fashion industry: the suffering behind your clothing choices

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