Words by Rachel Lamarche
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Rachel Lamarche M.A. is a Doctoral student within the RMIT School of Fashion and Textiles examining the relationship between Veganism and Fashion. Rachel is also the founder of the Vegan Women’s Collective and hosts its eponymous podcast on which she interviews entrepreneurs and activists.
One would have to be living under a rock not to notice the recent explosion in the release and uptake of fashion products with vegan certifications. Google trends reflect that the interest in ‘veganism’ increased seven-fold in the five years between 2014 and 2019. In May 2019, it was also estimated by UK food retailer Sainsbury’s in its ‘Future of Food’ report that vegans and vegetarians could make up a quarter of the British population in 2025.
Meanwhile, online trends analysis website Edited.com states in its 2019 Sustainability report on fashion retail that, “While this movement initially affected the food industry, it’s becoming essential for fashion retailers to also cater to vegans, who are shopping for alternatives to leathers, wools, and skins.”
So why does it seem like shoppers might be finding it easier to give up eating animal products than wearing them? This can be answered when looking at what the products are, what they are made of, and their effect on consumers.
If you’re a vegan, like me, and someone who is very much involved in the vegan community (I founded an organisation for vegan women and launched a podcast where I interview vegan entrepreneurs and activists) you know there are different types of vegans, and different motivations for transitioning to a vegan lifestyle, or a plant-based diet. If you don’t know, here’s a quick breakdown.
Most vegans (the jury is still out on that one, let’s say about 70%) self-identify as ethical vegans, meaning that they are mostly driven by animal rights or a deep-rooted belief that animals are sentient and shouldn’t be used by humans in any shape or form. Obviously, like in everything, people place themselves at different levels on the scale. We live in a complex world, and values and beliefs tend to encompass our immediate reality, especially when they are changing and rejecting what is perceived as the norm.
Others go vegan for environmental reasons, aware that animal agriculture at all stages is unsustainable, and extremely damaging to the planet including our water sources, ecosystems and food safety, as well as the physical and mental health of human beings.
Documentaries like 2011’s Forks Over Knives and more recently The Game Changers, executive produced by James Cameron – you know, Avatar – and featuring celebrity-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as a trove of pro-athletes and scientists, reflects the third reason why people choose to adopt a plant-based diet; it has been shown to not only be the most environmentally friendly, but also one of the most beneficial for human health and performance.
“How does this affect what people wear?” you might ask. Well, it all comes down to how one is wired to make decisions and their belief system.
For plant-based eaters, this might mean that one sees the benefits of a vegan “diet”, but, as they’re not putting their leather purse in their mouth, let alone swallowing it, this has no direct consequence on their physical well-being.
Additionally, leather, and other animal products such as cashmere and silk, are used in most luxury brands’ products, cementing the idea that animal products are not only a status symbol, they are also of higher quality. This contributes to the societal belief that non-leather products are “cheap” and lesser “imitations” made of environmentally damaging petroleum derived materials, keeping both fashionistas and self-proclaimed sustainable shoppers away.
But this is all changing, thanks to the animal rights movement, and innovative think-tanks like H&M’s Global Change Awards.
An example of this in action is the H&M Spring 2019 Conscious Exclusive eco-line, which featured products made of Piñatex®, a leather replacement made of pineapple fibre, BLOOM™Foam, a plant-based flexible foam using algae biomass, and Orange Fiber®, a regenerated cellulose fibre made of orange peels. The collection, despite being extremely trends focused and as far as humanely possible to slow-fashion, did mean an invaluable financial investment and marketing platform for these innovative materials manufacturers.
Additional innovations in the space abound and include Mylo™ mushroom-based leather replacements and the recently debuted Desserto™ made of the Mexican native Nopal cactus.
With major celebrities like Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Rick Owens collaborating on vegan product lines, and an ever-increasing pressure from individuals on companies to do better and act on climate change, everything points towards gradual but important movements in all industries, including in fashion.
You can expect a lot more of these innovations coming your way in the next few years, so watch this space!