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.
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This article isn’t a discussion on the pros and cons of real fur and offers no moral viewpoint on its use. I acknowledge that this contentious issue/material is divisive and has passion on both sides.
The real ‘fur’ industry has seen massive growth, since the beginning of this century, driven by international consumers and trims on accessories and coats. It is now a $40 billion industry. It was inevitable that it would have a backlash and there would be a reaction to it, most notably from younger consumers.
I put ‘fur’ into speech marks because it’s a very broad term and while some brands may no longer use mink they continue to use the skins of other animals and there’s no definitive reason for the choice of some animals making the used list and not the others. Read more here - ChicGeek Comment Fur Debate: You Either Use Animals Or You Don’t
Brands such as Gucci, Versace and Martin Margiela have decided to announce they will no longer use real fur. Donatella Versace recently said, “Fur? I am out of that,” she said. “I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Naturally we were disappointed to hear that Versace has said it won’t use real fur in collections. However, the majority of top designers will continue to work with fur as they know it is a natural product that is produced responsibly. When Donatella Versace says ‘I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion.’ presumably her company will soon stop using silk and leather?” says Andrea Martin from the British Fur Trade Association.
“It is disingenuous to claim that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, a cow still had to die to provide the product. Silk cocoons are placed in boiling water to help unravel the thread with the silk worm inside,” says Martin.
Italian accessories brand Furla has formally declared that it will be banning fur from its collections from November of this year, which would coincide with the launch of its Cruise ’19 collections. This follows decisions by Michael Kors and Yoox Net-A-Porter, which has declared that all its stores and websites would be real fur-free zones.
“I think some of the brands have gone fur free under pressure from anti-fur trends, and some are genuinely concerned. If brands don’t want to use animals for fashion then they need to consider leather, exotic skins, silk, sheepskin, makeup and products, all of which use animals. I also think human welfare is important to consider when producing fashion, and this often gets forgotten.” says Rebecca Bradley, a London based fur designer.
So, why are luxury brands really dropping the use of real fur?
I think it is pure economics and the high margin greed of today’s luxury industry. It’s the same reason many restaurants are pushing vegetarian and vegan options: the margins are higher and therefore the profit. By charging slightly lower prices for something which is much cheaper to make, the margins increase. There are only so many €25,000 full-fur coats a brand will sell and the ceiling price is sensitive, so you can’t factor in the same margins you would on your other products. If you make it in faux-fur you'll get a higher margin and a bigger percentage of profit. You’ll also sell more and probably generate more money overall.
The irony is, the reason a real fur coat is so expensive is because of the high welfare standards of the European producers. Luxury brands wouldn’t be able to use cheaper real-fur from other sources witout criticism and scrutiny.
“Fur coats may seem expensive, however the price of a fur coat should reflect a high standard of animal welfare, and therefore with a beautiful, high quality fur, many skilled people are involved with production, including a furrier, and finisher to create a fur coat that will last for many generations, ” says Bradley.
Fur, for the majority of brands, is a very small part of their businesses and therefore it’s not difficult to heroically declare you’re no longer going to use it. It’s also easily replaced by a cheaper, synthetic alternative while not altering the price very much or at all. You can paint the use of a fake fur trim as an ethical choice rather than a cost saver to the consumer. It’s cynical I know, but it’s working.
PETA’s Director, Elisa Allen, says, “Fur is dead, dead, dead. As well as making sense for designers' conscience, ditching fur makes business sense, as today's consumers are demanding animal and eco-friendly clothing for which no animal has been electrocuted, strangled, or caught in a steel-jaw trap. From Armani to Versace, the list of fur-free designers is growing every day, and innovative vegan fashion is on the rise. The tide has turned irrevocably, and there's no going back.”
Many brands used the word ‘sustainable’ when announcing their decision to no longer use real-fur, but again, this is another term in fashion that is very broad and has little full meaning until you see the detail. I’m not sure a fake fur coat is particularly sustainable, but then again it does depend on the material.
But, you also have to acknowledge that nobody needs to wear a real fur coat. We could easily survive without real fur, but it’s interesting how, out of all the animal products we use, this is one of the most offensive to some and creates the biggest reactions and protests.
The real fur industry continues to grow in China and with other newly rich consumers and markets. It is now a US$17 billion-a-year industry in China and Haining, near Shanghai, is its hub.. Fur companies will be a bit like tobacco companies: the falling sales in established markets will be replaced by growing sales in new and even bigger markets in Asia.
Chinese animal welfare standards are very different from European standards. European producers have very strict regulations and it’s an industry which has to be transparent in order to ward off criticism.
“We respect the fashion industry’s attempts to become more responsible for the products they produce. Animal welfare is of critical importance and the fur produced is farmed to the highest welfare standards.” says Martin.
“With growing concern about the environment and plastics we believe it is more responsible to move back to the use of natural, biodegradable materials. Fur is the natural and responsible choice for designers and consumers.” says Martin.
Ditching fur is quite a lazy way for luxury brands to try to be more ‘sustainable’ and look like they care about the environment.
“I think that companies and consumers becoming educated and aware of origins of products and materials is a fantastic thing, but the focus needs to be across the board, ensuring standards of human, or animal welfare and environmental impact.” says Bradley.
Many brands are seeing real fur as something they live without and it’s more hassle than it’s worth if the profit and quantities aren’t there. You can pick holes into both sides of the fur debate. While a positive move for many, the decision to no longer use real fur is really a cleverly spun business decision and driven by their continued obsession for huge margins.
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