When it comes to clothing, we have unlimited choices. However, while the fabrics and textures being manufactured are limitless, the demand for leather, fur and wool continues to rise. Animal welfare may not be top of mind when shopping for fashion, but I think it should be a consideration along with fair trade and value. Demand determines output and as consumers, we have a lot of power. If we care about animal welfare then we cannot ignore the important issues associated with animal products in the fashion industry.
Most leather comes from India and China, neither of which have animals welfare legislation. Many of these animals are factory-farmed which usually means confinement, extreme crowding, deprivation of basic needs, and painful treatment by the underpaid and unskilled workers handling them. Even in developed countries such as Australia, which is a major producer of leather, animals do not have the legal protections that pets have. They are routinely subjected to painful procedures and abuse.
Contrary to popular belief, leather is not just a by-produce of the meat industry. It is a profitable resource and an industry all it’s own. Cattle, pigs, sheep, crocodiles, goats, seals, snakes, kangaroos, stingrays and even horses are killed in large numbers just for their skin.
So what can you do if this doesn’t sit well with you?
Vegan leather is becoming more and more popular and dare I say, trendy. Today’s leather alternatives are thankfully, not the “pleather” of decades ago. They are featured in both high end and affordable design labels and are becoming quite accessible. Many fashion websites now even have a “vegan” category in their website menus. There is one important caveat to remember when shopping for vegan leather. Much of it is made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) plastic which is considered by most environmentalists to be extremely damaging to the environment. So, as usual, read labels carefully. There are sustainable alternatives. One example is Pinatex which is made from pineapple leaf fibers.
Look for second hand leather. In most cases, vintage leather (pre 1980) is higher quality and stands the test of time well. Let’s be honest, the best leather is leather that’s been “broken in”. So, if you are planning to shop for leather, reduce your carbon footprint and shop for leather in your local vintage clothier.
Unfortunately, the bucolic image of farmers gathering shed feathers in a barnyard is just not real. The reality is that feathers are plucked from ducks, geese and swans while they are alive or have been killed. Because feathers grow back, much like fur or hair, most down is obtained by live plucking, a very painful process. It makes more economic sense to keep birds alive so that they can be plucked over and over. Birds struggle to escape and often break limbs in the process. To make matters worse, up to 80% of down is produced in China, a country that has no animal welfare laws.
There are ethical brands. For instance, Patagonia has vowed to use only recycled down or down that can be traced to ethical sources. Suppliers can now be certified with Responsible Down Standards (RDS). Unfortunately, a study done by PETA found that some suppliers with the (RDS) certification were still sourcing from live plucked down. Once again, it’s up to us to read labels carefully if we want to know we’re making ethical and humane choices.
Fur and skins used to make luxury clothing comes from a wide range of animals that includes minks, foxes, rabbits, alpacas, goats, llamas and even cats and dogs. Cashmere and angora are sourced from the Cashmere Goat and Angora Rabbit.
While protests in the 90’s brought a lot of attention to the fur trade, fur continues to be used in many luxury brands. The World Society for the Protection of Animals found that 80% of fur is produced in China. As mentioned previously, China is a country that has no laws protecting animals. On fur farms throughout the world, 85% of animals in the fur trade are raised in battery cages, denying them any kind of natural life, let alone a quality one. It is not uncommon in the fur industry for animals to be killed through electrocution, gassing and beating. In China animals can actually be skinned alive. Fur that doesn’t come from fur farms is obtained by trapping or hunting animals in the wild. While this is considered to be a more “natural” means, it still imposes a great amount of stress and pain on the animals.
What are your alternatives?
Faux fur made from recycled or other sustainable materials is a great option and very accessible. However, some faux fur is made from non-renewable, petroleum-based products like polyester and nylon. This is often the case in “fast fashion”. Read labels!
It’s not hard to find secondhand or recycled fur in vintage boutiques and other places that sell used clothing. This kind of fur product already exists in abundance, so why not make the best possible use of the animal that was killed to create it and give the product a long life.
Most of us grew up believing that shearing sheep was a necessary practice and that we were, sort of, doing them a favor. That’s just not true. Sheep only grow the amount of wool needed for their climate. Because of breeding and genetic manipulation, sheep are raised to produce excessive amounts of wool. Additionally, there are very real concerns regarding the welfare of sheep in the wool industry. The living conditions and the pain and suffering they endure at the hands of their handlers are of great concern. Shearing is an acute stressor for sheep. Frequently sheep are wounded and injured during shearing. Much of the world’s wool comes from Australia. Because of the hot climate in Australia, they frequently use a painful procedure called mulesing. Fur with flesh attached, is cut from the animal’s buttocks or back, often without anaesthetic in order to prevent a parasitic infection called flystrike (myiasis). This practice is unacceptable.
What to do?
Buy from brands that use non-mulesed wool. Cute vintage woollen sweaters and coats are in abundance in re-sale and vintage boutiques. Consider plant-based materials like organic cotton, bamboo, linen and hemp. These fabrics are 100% cruelty-free and environmentally friendly when grown sustainably.
I don’t believe any of us believe our clothing is worth pain and cruelty suffered by any animal. There are many good people doing what they believe to be the right thing for animals in the industries I’ve mentioned here. At the end of the day, all animals want to live. We just have to decide what we are comfortable with when it comes to killing animals for our clothing. Being aware and informed about these industries is important. I believe that we all want to feel good about what we wear. There is a need for change in industries that exploit animals and change starts with us.