Does animal-free fashion equate to guilt-free garments?

16 : 07 : 2018 Fashion : Sustainability : Bioengineering
Zoa by Modern Meadow Zoa by Modern Meadow

A rejection of silk and cashmere could give rise to low-value synthetic alternatives that harbour their own environmental and ethical issues.

Rachael Stott, Senior Creative Researcher, LS:N Global

When it comes to fashion, the eco-anxiety struggle is real. The very premise of buying something new seems almost ridiculous when there is an estimated £30bn ($39.4bn, €33.6bn) worth of unused clothing hanging in UK wardrobes, with a further £140m ($184m, €157m) of clothing going into landfill each year, according to WRAP. And for those who choose to make a new clothing purchase, navigating the moral minefield of fast-fashion, sustainability and ethically manufactured products can be challenging.

Global online retailer ASOS hopes to make this quest easier. It recently announced plans to stop stocking certain animal-derived products – namely cashmere, silk, mohair and feathers – owing to the cruel processes often used to obtain these materials. Silkworms, for example, are often boiled alive to extract the silken fibres. Both socially conscious consumers and animal charity PETA publicly applauded ASOS's promise, in particular because of its influence as a global retailer addressing fashion supply chain issues.

Of course, fashion brands should be commended for taking steps towards a cruelty-free supply chain, but the elimination of all animal products, regardless of whether they are ethically sourced, sends out a confusing message. Animal-free doesn't automatically mean guilt-free. In fact, the promotion of animal-free alternatives can cause equivalent environmental suffering elsewhere.

35% of primary microfibres entering and harming the ocean are released through the washing of textiles.

A rejection of silk and cashmere could give rise to low-value synthetic alternatives such as polyester and poly-cotton, which harbour their own environmental and ethical issues. Not only are fabrics such as polyester derived from non-renewable resources such as oil, the washing of these materials causes microfibre pollution to enter water systems. Environmental charity Hubbub estimates that 35% of primary microfibres entering and harming the ocean are released through the washing of textiles. These same particles are emerging in our food chain, in products as varied as mussels and beer, the health impact of which is not yet unknown.

The overarching issue, however, is the fast fashion business model. Its linear fashion system means that clothes made from low-value materials are viewed as disposable entities. Cruel practices towards animals are part of a bigger systemic problem created by fast fashion’s demand for animal-derived fibres en masse. As demand for fashion has increased, prices and ethical standards have fallen.

The fashion industry needs to combine technology, research and major companies’ capital to revolutionise material innovation and ethics.

Yet, when sourced and manufactured ethically, natural fibres such as silk, alpaca wool and cashmere can be sustainable resources, and they are renewable as well as biodegradable. Plant-based fibres such as agave silk from cactus plants and milkweed fibres also offer an ethical alternative.

Another option is genetically engineered fabrics that not only imitate the properties of animal-derived fibres but also transcend them. One innovator is Modern Meadow, which is developing a biofabricated leather called Zoa made from a genetically engineered strain of yeast. And because it’s made in a laboratory, the process is both cruelty-free and sustainable.

If fast fashion brands took time to support and develop such alternatives, they would boost global production and access, while demonstrating commitment to more sustainable resources. The fashion industry needs to combine technology, research and major companies’ capital to revolutionise material innovation and ethics, creating more transparent supply chains or even genetically engineered fabrics. The industry, and its consumers, are waiting. And as the saying goes, the early bird catches the (silk) worm.

For more on the innovators scaling up the production of biofabricated leather, read our Synthetic Leather Market.