Vegan fashion: The truth behind the sustainability claims

June 7, 2022

By now, many of us are familiar with why a vegan diet is better for the planet, but what does veganism mean when it comes to fashion? 

The 2022 Met Gala brought this question into focus when singer-songwriter, Billie Eilish, graced the red carpet in a custom Gucci gown made entirely from upcycled materials. This was paired with vegan-material platform heels, which pulled the glamorous outfit together in a way that garnered Eilish a great deal of public praise. For the long-time vegan, it was important for her ensemble to be “as eco-friendly as possible”.1

Given the ethical and environmental concerns surrounding traditional fashion, it’s no wonder that Billie Eilish and many other influential figures are inspiring consumers to adopt a “greener” lifestyle. For some, this means shopping conscientiously and opting for vegan clothes, which are often perceived as the most ethical and environmentally friendly choice. However, the reality of vegan fashion is far from black and white. 

What is vegan fashion?

Vegan fashion refers to clothes, shoes, bags, and other accessories that have been made without using and harming animals. To be more specific, vegan fashion items do not contain any animal-derived materials such as fur, leather, wool, or silk, and for which no animal by-products were used during their production process. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

Vegan fashion is becoming increasingly popular among consumers, considering the ties traditional fashion has to poor animal welfare and the negative environmental impact of the fur trade and animal agriculture. According to a well-known study, the climate change impact from one kilogram of fur is at least five times higher than the highest scoring textile (wool), due to the production of animal feed and manure emissions.2

If we consider greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from animal-based materials, it’s easy to assume that vegan alternatives are more eco-friendly and – to some degree – they are. The carbon footprint of cow skin leather, for example, is found to be 110 kilograms per square metre, making it nearly seven times more climate impactful than synthetic leather by the square metre.3 It's a similar story for wool and silk production. 

Silk, in particular, relies on exposing silkworm cocoons to extreme heat through boiling or baking, which ultimately kills the pupae inside and makes the fibres easier to unwind. This process not only raises animal cruelty concerns, but also demands a great deal of water and energy.4 According to the Higg Index, silk has a larger water usage and global warming impact than synthetic alternatives like polyester.5

The plastic problem

The irony is that many consumers buy vegan fashion items because they are perceived to be more sustainable. However, some vegan products that are touted as “ethical” and “sustainable” contain at least some degree of synthetics such as polyester. Vegan leather is often made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), for instance. Whilst these plastic-based materials do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they can impact the environment in other ways. 

Synthetics rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this fashion industry staple is dependent on non-renewable fossil fuel extraction – a big no-no for environmentalists. Synthetics are also non-biodegradable and every time a polyester garment is washed, it releases plastic microfibres into our waterways, which can cause significant damage to marine wildlife and ecosystems. Over a third of all microplastics released into our oceans are from synthetic textiles.6

Then there’s the product lifecycle to consider – one study comparing the impact of four jumpers made from wool, cotton, polycotton and acrylic found that the wool jumper had the least environmental impact when accounting for the use phase.7 A short product lifespan raises yet more questions about the green credentials of some vegan fashion products. If you replace leather with plastic-based fabrics made from petroleum, can your fashion brand claim to be more ecological? 

Sustainable supply chain

Vegan doesn’t always mean sustainable. The good news is that more research and investment is being made into the area, which means sustainable fashion options will continue to improve for the benefit of both businesses and consumers. Mushroom leather, for example, is proving to be a particularly promising leather alternative, and is already being used by well-known brands like Adidas and Hermès.8,9

Furthermore, many fashion retailers are looking beyond product development to their overall supply chain and exploring new avenues to reduce their environmental impact. Some brands have even partnered with 3PL providers like Zendbox to sustainably fulfil online orders for their products. As an eCommerce fashion brand that sells high-quality, long-lasting jackets, Frahm partnered with Zendbox for its commitment to deliver a premium yet sustainable fulfilment service.

At Zendbox, not only do we plant 50 trees for every new client we onboard, but we also use eco-friendly packaging, recycle waste wherever possible, and power our fulfilment centres with renewable energy. Furthermore, we invest in carbon offsetting initiatives and work with world-class carriers to ship orders on ultra-low emission vehicles. The sustainability of our service makes Zendbox the first-choice fulfilment partner for environmentally conscious retailers.

A vegan future?

As with most goods, consumers need to do their research before they choose to buy. Vegan fashion will only become more popular as the demand for ethical, eco-friendly, and cruelty-free products continues to increase. Now is the time for fashion brands to look at their eCommerce operations holistically and take advantage of every opportunity within their supply chain to be more sustainable. The result will be happier, repeat customers and an even happier planet. 

Are you an eCommerce brand looking to outsource your fashion fulfilment operations? Get started now to find out how Zendbox can help.

Micah George
Marketing Specialist at Zendbox

Micah assists in developing and implementing innovative marketing campaigns that promote the products and services at Zendbox. She also produces articles, eBooks and other useful resources to help online retailers optimise their eCommerce operations and grow their business.

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