words | Julia Coelho
‘Tis the season of all things wool, leather, fur, you name it! But what do all of these have in common, aside from being some of our autumn favourites and wardrobe staples? It’s easy to forget, but the hides of animals are still among the most commonly used materials to make everything from shoes and jackets, to handbags. Every year, over 60 billion land animals are reared and slaughtered, (mostly in dire and cruel conditions) to meet the increasing demands of us, six billion humans, for meat and leather. Putting all ethical concerns aside for a moment, the environmental impacts of this alone, are staggering. To put things into perspective, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation claims that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of ALL greenhouse gases (that’s more than all cars, planes etc. combined), and requires more than 30% of the planet’s ice-free land, as well as accounting for more than 8% of global human water use. This is really only scratching the surface, but if it’s a subject that intrigues you, I would highly recommend watching the documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ – it’s a real eye-opener. Truthfully, this documentary, as well as a couple of others exploring the ethical concerns related to factory farming, are the main reasons why I myself mostly lean towards a fully plant-based diet, and am now slowly trying to educate myself in making that same transition in the world of fashion.
Fur is probably the fashion industry’s most divisive subject. However, as we become increasingly aware of the negative impacts that the fashion industry has, both morally and environmentally speaking – a market is not only emerging, but now flourishing, demanding synthetic fur and leather. In her campaigns and approach, Stella McCartney is one of the designers leading the way on this front, having never used real fur in her collections, as well as being an avid supporter of vegan leather alternatives. While most of us do not consider brands like Stella within the realms of what we deem even remotely affordable, most high-street shops, including those offered to us in Gibraltar, offer materials like pleather and faux fur.
Unfortunately, most of the options afforded to the environmentally conscious on the high-street – fast fashion in general, won’t exactly benefit the cause. Currently, most leather alternatives are made from plastic materials like PVC or Polyurethane (PU), the latter not quite as harmful as the former, but both of which still create an excess of toxic chemicals in their production, (which particularly affect factory workers) and can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. Faux fur, too, is made of non-biodegradable, chemical-based synthetics like nylon and polyester.
So, what is the solution? Considering that, yes, vegan leather is kinder to animals, but can still be incredibly harmful to the environment, and of course to humans, as a result? Well, not all is lost, because fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With growing demands for ethical fashion, and increased awareness, there are now a whole host of incredible innovative companies and bright minds dedicated to the discovery and creation of non-animal and non-toxic alternatives, which we can all expect to see in the not-too-distant future. Scientific developments in biotechnology, as well as plant-based biodegradable solutions, means that future generations may experience a totally different reality than ours with regards to fashion and its damaging consequences.
Piñatex was developed by Spanish designer, Carmen Hijosa; founder and CEO of socially-conscious textile company Ananas Anam. It has the typical “leather” texture we all know and love, but is also created purely from the fruit’s waste plant fibres, which means that it is not only more cost-effective than animal leather, but it is also environmentally friendly, durable and biodegradable.
Author and former fashion research fellow, Suzanne Lee, coined the term, ‘Biocouture’; the creation of plant-based fibres, produced by millions of tiny bacteria. Lee is currently the creative director of New York-based Modern Meadow Inc., a pioneering team of scientists, engineers, and artists, working to create sustainable materials, and develop cultured animal products. Lab-made leather essentially involves sourcing cells from animals, turning them into sheets, and then fusing those sheets together to create leather.
Waxed cotton has been on the scene for a good while now, and is currently being used by many designers as a leather alternative. Aesthetically-speaking, it’s remarkably similar to patent leather, but unlike real leather, it requires minimal care, and is simple to wash.
Last but certainly not least, muskin is a 100% biodegradable vegan “leather” alternative, extracted from mushroom caps, believe it or not. Because the tanning process is natural, and non-toxic unlike the process involved in producing animal leather, it is much safer to use to make products that will have direct contact with the skin, such as shoe insoles and watch straps. Not only is this material more sustainable, ethical, and safer to use, but it is also softer (much like suede), breathable, and more water repellent than animal leather!
It’s not an easy feat to make a clean shift from our usual shopping habits, to suddenly buying fully vegan, ethically sourced fashion, with zero impacts on the environment – the thought of that task alone seems too overwhelming to undertake. But a simple step in the right direction is at least being aware of the brands that are making strides in bettering themselves, and exploring the ethical collections offered to us by retail giants like ASOS; brands like
Matt & Nat, for instance – an eco-friendly company that experiments with recycled materials like rubber and cork across many of their products. The fact is, that with all of the fashion-related technological advancements we’re starting to see, there will come a time when, not only will we never need to use animal skins or fur in the fashion industry, but we will also be able to avoid all environmental repercussions that inevitably come with making the alternatives to these. It’s absolutely crucial that we continue to strive towards making fashion an ethical, sustainable and accountable industry.