The vegan movement is no longer a fringe lifestyle choice, but a popular alternative for people who care about animals and the future of our planet. Over 500,000 people took part in Veganuary 2021, up 100,000 from the previous year. And an estimated 78 million people worldwide now identify as vegan.
People typically focus on the dietary aspects of veganism, since it is the area of our lives where going vegan might cause the most obvious changes or effects on our everyday. But veganism goes way beyond simply avoiding meat and dairy. Animal products are found in a wide range of everyday items, including our clothing, shoes, accessories, and beauty products.
Even for those of us who don’t intend to move to a fully vegan diet, being aware of the ethical issues associated with animal products being used for beauty and fashion items is vital. If we want to reduce our impact on the planet and its inhabitants, vegan beauty and fashion offers an interesting and impactful alternative to conventional options.
In this article, we’ll look at the various ways animals and other creatures are impacted by the fashion and beauty industry. We’ll discuss the ins and outs of using animal products (knowingly or otherwise) and examine the different labelling schemes and alternatives available.
What is vegan fashion and beauty?
Just as vegans avoid eating anything that is derived from animals, most vegans also choose fashion and beauty products that don’t include any animal materials or byproducts.
For clothing and accessories, that means avoiding leather, fur, wool, and silk, as well as embellishments or accessories made from feathers, bone, and horn.
For beauty products, things can start to get more complicated. Animal-derived ingredients are often less obviously labelled, so you need to know a bit about common examples in order to successfully avoid them.
Some ingredients used in beauty and personal care items that come from animals include:
- Products made by bees, such as honey, beeswax, propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly
- Lanolin from sheep’s wool
- Carmine, which is a red dye made from beetles
- Shellac, a substance secreted by insects
- Keratin, which is made from horns, feathers, and hooves
- Collagen, usually made from skin, cartilage, and sinew
- Elastin, which comes from connective tissues
- Milk products
- Guanine from fish scales
- Glucosamine, derived from shellfish
- Tallow, otherwise known as animal fat
- Gelatine, which comes from boiled bones and hooves
- Retinoids, a form of retinol (vitamin A) made from animal products. Carotenoid is a vegan alternative made from carrots
Veganism differs from vegetarianism in cutting out all animal products, rather than just meat and fish. So, for a vegetarian, honey, milk, and wool are usually acceptable. For a vegan, these items will normally be off limits as they are derived or otherwise taken from another living being. Some vegans will make an exception for recycled or vintage materials, as we’ll discuss later.
Why choose vegan beauty and fashion products?
For many of those who are committed to a vegan lifestyle, any exploitation of animals is unacceptable. According to the Veganuary campaign, 37% of those who take part do so because they are concerned about animal welfare.
Intensive animal agriculture has been linked to several inhumane practices, including overcrowding, overuse of antibiotics, and mutilations such as tail docking or beak trimming.
Many vegans avoid animal products because they want these cruel practices to stop. Some say that any human exploitation of animals should end, including high-welfare farming. They believe it is immoral to use other living beings in this way.
For others, it is concern for the environment that drives them to choose vegan products. It is well known that farming animals is an incredibly resource-intensive process. It requires a great deal of water and energy compared to plant-based crops and related agricultural practices. Cattle in particular are linked with methane production, which is a greenhouse gas. And keeping farmed animals fed of course, requires a lot of land, linking the practice with deforestation and the associated loss of biodiversity this inevitably leads to.
And, of course, you don’t have to be fully vegan to want to avoid the unnecessary use of animal products. You may find it ethically acceptable to eat some meat or dairy, but decide to boycott animal products in your fashion, beauty, and personal care items. Ultimately, the choice is a highly individual one and there as with all things, there is a scale of better actions that we can all look to work into our lives in a way that works with our specific situations and circumstances.
Issues with fabrics made from animals
When it comes to animal-derived textiles, the production process can add to the environmental and animal welfare issues.
Most leather comes from cattle, although some more exotic creatures, like crocodiles, snakes, and alligators, are also used for luxury items with the material sometimes marketed as ‘leather’.
As well as being linked with beef production, which is a resource-intense and environmentally damaging industry, turning animal hides into wearable items is far from environmentally friendly.
Tanning leather, for example, is a highly toxic process that is damaging to both the environment and the health of the workers involved. The process produces noxious gases and chemicals, including the carcinogenic chromium (IV), which can cause liver and kidney damage.
When not properly managed, the damaging chemicals produced by the leather industry often run into local waterways, where they can pollute drinking water and cause significant harm to aquatic life.
Alternatives: Alternatives to conventional leather such as vegan leather are an obvious first choice if you’re looking to steer clear of animal-derived materials. It is important to note here however, that vegan leather is usually made from polyurethane or PVC which can have its own set of issues that may need to be weighed up when deciding on the best option for your requirements. Both of these vegan leather options are typically derived from petrochemicals, although plant-based versions are emerging. As with other plastics, these options come with their own set of environmental issues, such as microplastic pollution.
Having said that, some designers now use leather made from other materials, including cork, pineapples, mushrooms, corn, and apples, all of which are a clear signal that the path to better leather alternatives is becoming more well trodden by the day.
Silk is made by silkworms. Due to this, most vegans will avoid it since it is an animal product. Not only that, but conventionally produced silk requires the silkworm larvae to be boiled alive in their cocoons, which whilst not a commonly advertised manufacturing process, certainly gives pause for thought once you start to do the research.
There are alternatives to conventional silk, such as peace silk or wild silk, where the larvae are allowed to hatch into moths before the silk is harvested. Although some people will find these alternatives a more acceptable option, even peace silk comes with its own set of environmental issues.
A lot of energy is typically needed to keep the correct temperature and humidity levels for the silkworm larvae to thrive, and as you might expect, the process also demands a lot of water.
Alternatives: You need to be a bit careful when it comes to vegan silk. Some manufacturers will call silk that allows the moths to hatch before harvesting ‘vegan’, even though this is still an animal product. Other fabrics that are often substituted for silk include viscose/rayon, modal, and Tencel (a brand name for lyocell).
Again, these fabrics aren’t without environmental impact, especially viscose/rayon, which is actually manufactured using some highly damaging chemicals. Tencel does eliminate many of these problems and is fast becoming a fabric of choice for environmentally minded fashion brands.
Many people avoid fur, even those who don’t otherwise mind using animal products. High profile campaigns by animal rights groups have done a good job in highlighting the often cruel and inhumane conditions that many animals in fur farms endure.
Fur typically comes from animals such as mink and fox, which aren’t eaten. So, unlike leather or wool, which at least come from animals that are also used for food, fur production wastes much of the animal in pursuit of a single resource.
Fur farming was banned in the UK in 2000 and is illegal in several other countries too. However, a ban on farming animals for fur doesn’t equal a ban on fur itself, and it is still sold in many countries.
Even when fur is taken from roadkill, or wild animals, the treatment process typically uses damaging chemicals such as chromium and formaldehyde, which are toxic to both humans and the environment.
Alternatives: Faux fur is widely used as an alternative to conventional animal fur, and many fashion brands have made the decision to avoid real fur altogether. However, faux fur is often made from polyester, a synthetic fabric derived from petrochemicals, which have their own environmental impact.
More environmentally friendly options are beginning to appear, including bio-based furs like KOBA, which is produced by faux fur manufacturers, ECOPEL.
While most people can understand why vegans want to avoid silk, leather, or fur, wool can seem more of a grey area. Unlike other animal-derived textiles, wool is taken from sheep while they are still alive. Indeed, most breeds of sheep now need to be sheared in the summer, or they will simply overheat.
Of course, many vegans believe that we shouldn’t farm animals for food or materials at all. So, they would avoid wool because of its association with sheep farming and the fact that we are ultimately taking something which would not be considered ours to take.
While sheep farming may be less environmentally damaging than raising cattle, it is still resource intensive. Sheep also produce methane, contributing to global warming and, as with other intensive livestock farming, land may be cleared to create grazing pastures, linking wool production to deforestation, monoculture practices, and a loss of biodiversity.
Alternatives: Acrylic and polyester are common alternatives to wool for knitted clothing, however these are synthetic fibres and are usually derived from petrochemicals. Fortunately, there are other options available too, including Tencel, bamboo, linen, and cotton.
While some vegans would never countenance wearing parts of an animal, others may consider second-hand clothing that uses animal-derived textiles such as leather, silk, fur, or wool as an ethical option.
Arguably, once these items are already in circulation, it is better to carry on using them in support of increased circularity in the system, rather than sending them to landfill. As well as purchasing second-hand or vintage items, some vegans are similarly happy to wear clothing made from recycled wool, leather, and silk.
Everyone has their own approach to the ethics of using animals when it comes to fashion and clothing. For some, second-hand or recycled options are a reasonable compromise. Others will prefer to avoid these textiles altogether, either because they don’t like the idea of wearing an item made from animals, or because they don’t want to imply support for fashion that uses these materials in the first place.
What is the difference between vegan and cruelty-free?
Most people would agree that our beauty products shouldn’t come at the cost of animal suffering. Campaigners worldwide have brought attention to the once common practice of testing skincare, personal care products, and makeup on animals before releasing them onto the market.
In the UK and the EU, cosmetics that are tested on animals have been banned since 2013. And other countries have followed suit, including New Zealand and, more recently, Australia. Unfortunately, the same is not yet true in the USA. Although plans to make it illegal to sell cosmetics that are tested on animals began in 2015, they’ve not yet made it into law.
In some countries, such as China, animal testing is still required by law. There’s some hope that this may start to change, but it means that brands who market cruelty-free products in other countries carry out animal testing so they can sell to the rapidly growing Chinese market.
In countries where animal testing is still legal but is not required by law, labelling schemes are used to indicate those brands and products that are ‘cruelty free’. This means that none of the ingredients have been tested on animals. The labelling schemes are overseen by independent third-party companies, including PETA, Leaping Bunny, COSMOS, or NaTrue.
However, being cruelty-free doesn’t mean that a beauty product is vegan and it is entirely possible for some of the ingredients still to be derived from animals.
And the reverse is also true. Vegan products are not necessarily cruelty-free – they just don’t contain animal products.
Fortunately, there are labelling schemes that can tell us if a product is both cruelty-free and vegan. PETA, for example, offer an enhanced version of their Beauty without Bunnies label that indicate an item is free from animal products as well as not tested on animals.
In the UK, the Vegan Society’s Vegan trademark is used on beauty products that are vegan and contain no ingredients that have been tested on animals on behalf of the manufacturer.
Of course, this does leave some leeway for suppliers to test ingredients before they are sold on to the actual manufacturer. But with the additional protection of EU and UK law, shoppers can choose products labelled with the Vegan trademark in some certainty that they won’t have been tested on animals.
When it comes to fashion, there is less of a difference in cruelty-free and vegan items since clothing is unlikely to be tested on animals anyway. You’ll sometimes see items labelled cruelty-free when they are free from animal products.
The limitations of vegan fashion and beauty
Choosing vegan items can go some way to limiting the impact of your fashion and beauty items on animals and the planet. But they don’t tell the whole story.
As we saw when we looked at alternatives to animal-derived textiles, vegan doesn’t always automatically mean environmentally friendly. Other fabrics can have a significant impact on the environment too – synthetic textiles are often made from plastics or use harmful chemicals in their production. Natural plant-based fabrics like cotton are water-hungry and can be associated with high levels of pesticide use.
In our beauty products, even vegan ingredients can devastate the environment. Palm oil, for example, is vegan but is also linked with massive levels of deforestation. Parabens and phthalates often found in cosmetics, skincare and haircare products are also vegan but are derived from petrochemicals and can impact human health.
It also depends on how plant-based ingredients are grown. Conventionally farmed plants are often sprayed with chemicals, including pesticides and insecticides to minimise damage (and losses) and maximise productivity (and profit). These can, and often do, affect beneficial insects, such as bees, whose role as pollinators makes them integral to our ecosystems, our food chains, and ultimately are survival as a species.
If your main concern is avoiding animal products, then vegan clothing, shoes, and beauty items are a good option if you’re looking to do better. But if you are thinking of the wider environmental impacts of your consumption habits, then you might want to choose products that are also certified organic as well as meeting vegan criteria.
Opting for organic beauty ingredients and textiles means choosing those materials and ingredients grown with minimal use of damaging synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. They are also free from potentially harmful chemicals such parabens. Beyond this, organic beauty products are also cruelty-free which again, goes a long way to ensuring adherence to a ‘minimal harm’ approach in your buying decisions.
There is rarely a one-size fits all option when it comes to sustainable fashion and beauty items. But for those of us who want to limit our impact on other living creatures, choosing vegan textiles, cosmetics, and skincare is absolutely a positive step to take.
Where possible, we can also look out for items that are certified organic and cruelty-free to ensure they are as environmentally friendly as they can be.
And you don’t need to adopt a vegan diet to want to choose vegan beauty and fashion. Anyone can look out for these options and begin to work elements of the ethos into their everyday as part of a more environmentally conscious lifestyle that feels better and does better.