Veganism has caught the public’s attention. The combination of environmental and health benefits has made huge numbers of people switch to a plant based diet. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. Today, there are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, or 1.16% of the population; 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014 and this growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing.
Left - Watson & Wolfe - Vegan leather - Slim Credit Card Case - £30, Wallet With Coin Pocket - £65
It’s not just vegans who are buying into this growing market. Many people are cutting down their meat consumption and opting for meals without animal products. It’s cool to buy ‘vegan’, right now, whether you are one or not.
The vegan trend has continued into beauty with 82% of all new vegan items launched in the UK last year belonging to the beauty category. And, now, it’s the turn of the fashion business. Brands are seeing pound signs from consumers wanting a complete vegan lifestyle, or an alternative to products using animal skins or products. The anti-fur/exotic skins movement has seen many brands drop ranges from their collections and replace them with items labelled as vegan.
While the reduction in carbon emissions and environmental benefits is clear by switching from meat to plant-based food, is switching from leather to non-leather substitutes, usual plastics, that beneficial? Isn’t vegan fashion just more plastic in the world?
Helen Farr-Leander, Founder, Watson & Wolfe, www.watsonwolfe.com a new vegan, PETA approved British men’s accessorises business, says, “For me, vegan fashion encourages us to think about our future and our responsibility – being sustainable and environmentally-friendly and cruelty free.”
“Our intention was originally to work in the leather industry, which is where our experience lies, but our research into starting the business uncovered some facts that we didn’t like and we realised the true cost of the industry. The level of cruelty I witnessed and the impact on the planet of industrial farming for leather and the pollution from the chemical processes of tanning led me to transition to veganism and this was the turning point.” she says.
Watson & Wolfe’s ‘eco-leather’ is a giant stride towards fully sustainable leather. Rather than being 100% polyurethane, the base material is made with more than 50% bio plant material, that does not divert resources necessary for food farms or animal feed. This bio content comes entirely from renewable sources and is carbon neutral, so the production of the material has a substantially lower impact on the environment. The recycled linings are made from 100% post-consumer plastic bottles which are recycled into a PET yarn and the gift boxes and tissue papers are also made from high quality recycled materials which are biodegradable and recyclable.
Right - Billy Tannery 'Gote'' Tote - £395
“In the case of the leather industry, projections indicate that the industry will need to supply 430 million cows annually by 2025, a staggering statistic that is at odds with the 360% rise in vegetarianism and veganism over the past decade. We are focused on providing a more responsible, environmentally friendly product and we continue to seek material which avoids the use of animal-based components and that continually improves the sustainability of our collection.” says Farr-Leander. “This is not the case with all vegan fashion, and consumers should always do their research before buying anything.” she says.
The V&A’s exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature’, last year, featured materials such as ‘Vegea’ which uses grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute, as well as a Ferragamo piece made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry. There is leather also made from apple skins used by new ‘sustainable’ designer labels such as Zilver.
These materials are often more expensive than traditional leather and aren’t available in the quantities many brands desire. For the ethical cynics, there are some brands labelling plastic as vegan to jump on the ethical band wagon. Some consumers are also skeptical about these new leathers being as durable and tough as traditional leathers, especially for things like bags and shoes.
Jack Millington, Co-Founder of Billy Tannery, a new British tannery using goat leather from the food industry, says, “There are lots of so-called vegan alternatives to leather, but the vast majority are plastic products like PVC or PU which are being re-labeled as vegan. If we are comparing plastic with artisan leather created from a by-product, then I don't think there can be any confusion as to which is better for the environment. Even with recycled plastic materials, there needs to be more research done into the micro-plastics that these materials could be emitting.”
“There are a few plant fibre materials that are also touted as "vegan leather", but in our experience these are more similar to cardboard in performance than leather, so end up being coated in a layer of plastic anyway.” says Millington.
Left - Billy Tannery founders Jack Millington and Rory Hawker
Billy Tannery's goat leather is produced using goatskins sourced from the British food industry that were previously going to waste. Before they started nearly all of these goatskins were being destroyed, so they take this waste product and turn it into a functional material in their own micro-tannery in the Midlands, between Leicester and Northampton. Their signature ‘Gote’ tote bag is £395 and is made in Somerset or Leicestershire.
“We believe that ours is one of the most environmentally friendly leathers available today. Our unique tanning process not only uses bark extracts instead of the usual metal salts, but it recycles 90% of the water used and turns much of the waste into compost. Also, when compared to most industrially tanned leather which circles the globe to be tanned as cheaply as possible, our supply chain is kept in the UK which drastically reduces the "leather miles" and in turn the carbon footprint.” he says.
Like all environmental labelling, it’s good to read behind the lines. Just because something is ‘organic’, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been flown halfway around the world and just because something is labelled ‘vegan’, it doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment. It’s important for consumers to ask questions, do their research and buy from brands taking us in the right direction with or without animal products.
Read more ChicGeek expert comments - here
Fashion, in its nature, isn’t logical. Before things are broken or unusable we move onto consuming the next item all under the umbrella of ‘fashion’. It’s a huge, global business which basically comes down to us buying more things than we need and, also, new things before our existing things are redundant or can no longer fulfil their purpose.
It’s also very creative and what makes us human beings.
Left - Northern European fields full of flax
It’s therefore not in the fashion business’ interest to get us, as consumers, to buy or use less. So, what we’ve seen over the latest few years is many retailers using the term ‘sustainable’ to give our consumption the gloss of being better or even good for the environment while continuing to encourage us to buy even larger amounts.
It’s difficult for retailers and brands to tell us to buy less or not at all. They want us to feel good while we are shopping, but can ‘fashion’ ever be sustainable and what does ‘sustainable’ even mean?
Bruce Montgomery, Course leader BA hons Fashion UCA Epsom/Menswear Consultant, says, “While it’s a mammoth task, fashion needs to become sustainable. The industry is over producing, this is leading to excessive consumption with 300,000 tons of clothing being dumped on landfill either by both retailers and consumers rather than recycled. Patagonia’s don’t buy this jacket campaign and Stella McCartney’s fashion campaign shot with models lying in landfill tried to raise awareness to the problem, but much more industry commitment is needed.”
“Brands have understood its positive to be seen as ‘sustainable’. This has led to many jumping on the marketing bandwagon without any commitment and just greenwashing the surface of the topic. The word unfortunately is in danger of being watered down in the same way the word ‘luxury’ is now applied to fast fashion products. Why should consumers believe brands when they discover there is no substance behind a brand’s sustainable stance or strategy?” says Montgomery.
Niche brands with stringent green credentials are really trying to separate themselves from the mainstream ‘sustainable’ bandwagon. Swedish, independent outdoor clothing brand, Houdini, aims to “become fully circular in sustainability - and setting the standard for sustainable fashion and its mission towards ‘impact positive’ status”. Ninety one percent of their product is made from recycled, recyclable, renewable, biodegradable or Bluesign - it eliminates harmful substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process and sets and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production - certified fabrics.
Eva Karlsson, CEO, Houdini Sportswear, says, "We find ‘sustainability’ not only a boring phrase, but an underwhelming ambition. To be sustainable should be seen as the bare minimum for an organisation’s social and environmental impact. Imagine a world where businesses set out to have a positive impact on the planet, and customers demanded it.”
Can fashion ever be ‘sustainable’? “With the knowledge and available technologies of today fashion (as in apparel) could and should be way closer to sustainable than what is currently the case. The trouble is best technologies and best practices are seldom implemented by retailers and brands, or some are implemented for one specific product or product group rather than for the big bulk. This is true not only for environmental factors, but for social and ethical factors as well.” says Karlsson.
“There are numerous reasons for this. Lack of guts and willpower to change, lack of knowledge, lack of time in an ever speedier fast fashion market. On the systemic level hinders are built into the system – buyers and sustainability managers are often working in their separate silos, the pricing structures of today work against the transition to sustainable business practices and regulations are poor.” she says.
Is the future buying differently then? The Victoria & Albert Museum recently held an exhibition entitled ‘Fashioned From Nature’ looking at the materials and inspiration the fashion industry has taken from nature. It was sponsored by CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp and they used the exhibition to highlight and promote this natural fibre - linen.
Marie-Emmanuelle Belzung, Director, CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp, says, “Not many people know – almost nobody – that three countries in Europe are the worldwide leader in flax production: France, Belgium and the Netherlands. More than 80 per cent of worldwide production comes from these three. And the quality from here is far superior to elsewhere, because the climate and conditions are perfect, and the knowledge and expertise are far superior. So, linen production is very local – you can see the fields from the Eurostar.”
Right - Flax - linen - grows naturally with no irrigation
“And there is no irrigation – no water needed, no GMO, no waste, no poison going into the water system, which is vital when you consider the demand for water in the future. Plus, linen is a good local employer: it takes five times more labour than wheat, because flax is a very technical crop. More technical than corn or wheat or other agricultural products that might occupy the fields. Then, the process of transferring the plant to the fibre is purely mechanical, involving no chemistry. Linen is natural, and entirely sustainable.” says Belzung.
Compared to cotton, which uses enormous amounts of pesticides and water, linen is a local European crop and is underused in fashion with many associating it with seasonal summer shirts and suits.
“Linen’s continued popularity is thanks to innovation. In the last ten years, linen the textile has enjoyed two major innovations. Knitted fabric has developed thanks to innovation on the yarn. Knitted linen overturns one stereotype: it is linen that does not wrinkle. Second is washed linen, which gives the fabric some pep and so seduces a new generation of consumers. Makes linen soft and chic.” says Belzung.
“In our special project with Chelsea College of Arts the concept of linen as a sports fabric – natural moisture management, naturally hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial – was one of the strongest ideas. Of course, blending anything with petro-chemicals diminishes the sustainability argument. Flax fibres are also being combined with eco-plastics to create, for example, car interiors, speakers and sporting equipment such as skis.” she says.
Linen is a perfect example of how consumers can swap one fabric for another. If consumers have a choice between a white cotton shirt and a white linen shirt, with this knowledge, they can make a more educated decision with less environmental impact.
Montgomery says, “We are consuming more cotton than we are growing, so materials like flax will need to be used more by designers in the future. An education programme will be needed because, while brands continue to use cotton, consumers will buy it instead of alternatives such as flax because they are familiar with it. The Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit has been very successful in getting high profile leaders from academia and industry together to discuss sustainability, but it is still only covering the converted. The loop from producer to consumer needs to be joined up.”
Right - Raw linen on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum Exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature’
“We need the whole industry to understand that sustainability needs to be applied to all aspects of the fashion business. Starting from yarns to fabric, manufacture, producing less through better range planning, making more locally, as well as recycling. Technology is being used to resolve the issue and their are new developments coming through such as polymer recycling, but this will take time. A lot more can be done in the short term simply by every brand making a sustainable commitment. The Kering group for example have been very pro active in enforcing their sustainable strategy across the group, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is researching new ways to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a better future through a circular economy.” he says.
“If the industry would let go of business as usual and decide on making the transition without compromise it could do so today. With emerging technology it could reach even further, becoming truly sustainable, restorative and even regenerative.” says Karlsson.
I don’t think it’s realistic to ask people to buy less. It’s even more patronising to ask people with less money not to buy cheaper clothes. We need people to buy differently while we wait for technology and economics to close the circle on fashion items.
In the future, I can see us recycling our clothes like we do with other recyclables. Putting them into piles according to their fibre make up. This will satisfy the speed of fashion and also the in-built disposabiltiy.
Things need to go around and around and around. It’s not enough for something to be made out of plastic bottles once. It, itself, needs to be recyclable and then into something else and then something else. We need to close the loop. That is sustainable.
We know what our clothes are made from, you only have to look at the label, but do we know which materials are the least and most damaging to the environment? Probably not.
The new fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Fashioned From Nature, gets serious about the impact fashion is having on the world. It starts off fairly simply, looking at the raw and natural materials used in clothing and decoration from the 17th century onwards, and quickly charts the growing appetite for the rare and exotic to decorate the wealthy’s clothes.
Left - Historical dress inspired by nature and new discoveries
Right - Fashion protesting against itself
It’s interesting how our love of nature and the beauty we see in it has made people want to wear it and at the same time destroy it. It's very difficult to strike a balance.
This isn’t your standard fluffy fashion exhibition or one dominated by big names, it’s a thought provoking look about what things are, where they come from and their impact on the environment. But, it’s done in a way that isn’t preaching or has a strong agenda.
It’s sponsored by the European Confederation of Flax and Hemp, but I feel they could have done more to highlight the benefits of wearing flax. (I didn't see hemp mentioned at all). Most commonly made into linen, flax is one of the easiest and least damaging forms of materials to grow and is definitely something we should be wearing more of. It would have been nice to see more with regards to how you can use it, different finishes and something more than being the material of a few seasonal summer shirts and suits. There’s a wall you can touch at the very beginning made of flax. It feels like really dry horse hair.
Left - Lace Bark grown from a tree
Right - Toxic Evening Coat, Madame Grès, 1936
Things I learnt from this exhibition: I’d never heard of ‘Vegetable Ivory’ or ‘Lace-Bark’ before. I didn’t know the bones used in corsetry are called ‘Baleen’, after the type of whale.
Upstairs there is a lot going on. Some pieces are simply inspired by nature while others show new materials made from by-products or waste. ‘Vegea’ uses grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute and their ‘Grape’ gown is on show, as well as a Ferragamo piece made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry and an H&M Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic.
I think educating people - cotton uses ridiculous amounts of pesticides and water - about what they are wearing is important and it would have been good to have seen different materials: wool, flax, cotton compared with one another. These are the main choices people have when shopping.
Fashion in its nature is wasteful and destructive. There’s no logic to moving on from perfectly wearable clothes and buying new ones other than to stay ‘fashionable’. But, that’s how it works and it’s also a huge business employing many people.
We need to be realistic, the odd dress made from recycled plastic bottles isn’t even scratching the surface. We need to look at clothing like other recyclables. Take the components and raw materials apart and reuse into new garments. This would require less fresh materials and would also close the loop on the fashion industry.
Left - Vegetable Ivory
Right - The flax wall
I think it’s naive to ask people to buy less. We need to improve environmental practises, push less destructive options and reuse and recycle more.
Fashion is dictated to by money. The minute it becomes more cost effective to do something, then it will happen. Let’s just hope that's sooner rather than later.
Fashioned from Nature - Victoria & Albert Museum - Fashion, Gallery - 21 April 2018 – 27 Jan 2019 #FashionedFromNature - £12
Below - The 'GuppyFriend' which stops micro particles being released from your washing machine into the environment