When Vegan Clothes are Bad For Animals

By GreenGreenGreen Editor, Mark Campbell

Making clothes out of recycled plastic might have seemed a good idea as the fashion industry sought to become more sustainable. But it’s harming the environment. It’s harming animals. Humans, too.

This seriously undermines the ‘vegan fashion’ tag and brings into question accreditations like ‘Peta-approved’ and B Corp.

Why? Because at the heart of veganism is the prevention of any kind of suffering to animals. The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.”

So why might recycled plastic not be vegan? Used in a closed-loop recycling system, for long-lasting items like furniture, for example, recycling is a sensible way of responding to plastic pollution.

But clothing is a whole different thing. We wash clothing. And when we wash clothing containing oil-based materials like elastane, spandex, polyester, nylon – and recycled plastic – we release microfibres into the water system.

Once in the water, microfibres are ingested by organisms and small creatures, which are then consumed by larger animals.

Microfibres can cause physical harm to wildlife by causing internal blockages and injuries to the digestive system.

Ingesting microfibres can lead to malnutrition and decreased energy levels, affecting growth and survival.

Toxins from the microfibres can leach into the tissues of animals, disrupting reproductive health and physiological functions.

Does this sound like cruelty to animals? Indirectly, of course, but surely it has to be?

So is recycled plastic in clothing actually vegan? We need to have a serious conversation about this.

Is Recycled Plastic Clothing Just Greenwashing?

On the face of it, making clothes out of recycled plastic, or adding a trace of elastane to sustainable bamboo socks, might amount to be greenwashing.

But I’m going to give most brands the benefit of the doubt, for now.

Take our own Shop Greener guide for example. We partnered with a lot of brands which, on the face of it, appeared to be doing their very best to help the planet by taking the sustainable / ethical / vegan route in fashion.

That was refreshing, but on closer inspection we have had to put some relationships on pause, because the companies are either using recycled plastic (which is still plastic) or they have spoiled all their hard work by occasionally including such materials as elastane or recycled polyester.

It’s often a range of socks, or swimwear, where something stretchy or quick-drying is needed. They may only contain 2% plastic. But it’s still plastic. It’s still harmful.

We’ll be asking these brands to kindly remove the harmful products from their ranges, and then we’ll shout their praises from the rooftops. Genuinely, many of them might not realise the seriousness of their well-intended actions.

Is It Really Possible To Be 100% Vegan in Fashion?

We appreciate the difficulty. Elastane, for example, adds elasticity to a product, particularly socks and waistbands, and such benefits can’t easily be replicated with organic, biodegradable fabrics.

Nevertheless, this and similar substances still pollute the environment when washed or discarded. It’s also possible to blend such things as natural rubber and organic cotton to produce stretchy material – and you’ll see from the list below that there is a wealth of alternative materials now available.

In a Greenpeace report of 2023, Dr. Therese Karlsson, Science Advisor with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), reminded us: “Plastics are made with toxic chemicals, and these chemicals don’t simply go away when plastics are recycled.

“The science clearly shows that plastic recycling is a toxic endeavour with threats to our health and the environment all along the recycling stream.

“Simply put, plastic poisons the circular economy and our bodies, and pollutes air, water, and food. We should not recycle plastics that contain toxic chemicals.”

To give some credit to the fashion industry, the realisation that using recycled plastic was a bad thing, is starting to dawn on people. See this article by The Sustainable Fashion Forum, for instance.

But countless ‘Vegan Fashion’ outlets are still singing their own ethical praises while selling items containing plastic – sometimes not even recycled.

The debate needs to be had, the question needs to be asked: Should plastic clothing products still be classed as vegan?

What Materials Are Vegan and Plastic-Free?

Look out for these textiles that are vegan, plastic-free, ethical and sustainable:

Organic Cotton: Grown without harmful chemicals, with minimal water use, and even improves the soil.

Recycled Cotton: Produced using post-industrial or post-consumer waste.

Linen: A durable material that becomes softer and stronger with each use.

Hemp: Grows without any use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers, and is completely biodegradable.

Bamboo: Look for organic sustainably sourced bamboo fabric, as bamboo rayon / viscose uses harmful chemicals.

Tencel: An elastane alternative, made from wood-pulp cellulose, this is one of the most sustainable fibres.

Lyocell: A soft fibre also made from wood pulp, usually of eucalyptus trees.

Modal: A variety of rayon, this is made from the renewable fibre of beech trees.

Seaweed: Dried seaweed is crushed into cellulose fibre to make a variety of textiles, known as SeaCell. 

Cork: Sustainably harvested by shaving away bark from cork oak – which actually extends the tree’s life.

Soybeans: Also known as vegetable cashmere, soy fabric is made from a byproduct of soybean processing.

Mirum: A plastic-free vegan leather made from plant oils and waxes.

Lunaform: A new fabric made from the nurturing of microorganisms in a nutrient-rich environment.

Ramie: A silk replacement made from a nettle plant.

You may also see reference to plant-based leathers, made from apples, pineapples, mushrooms, corn and more.

Most of these are not 100% plastic-free – but they’re getting there.

Where Can You Buy Plastic-Free Clothing?

In seeking to provide people with the ultimate guide to ethical, vegan, plastic-free fashion brands on this Shop Greener page, we have faced a real battle, for the reasons already outlined.

We’ve been so affected by this that we’ve launched our own GreenGreenGreen clothing range. We use the same suppliers – Teemill – as used by the likes of Greenpeace, BBC Earth, TV nature presenter Chris Packham, The Wildlife Trusts and Music Declares Emergency.

Teemill are an ethical print-on-demand company based on the Isle of Wight, using only 100% organic cotton. All their print-on-demand clothing is sustainable, ethical, plastic-free, vegan, cruelty-free and made with renewable energy.

If you want anything other than t-shirts, hoodies and jumpers, you can also check out Teemill’s own fashion label, Rapanui. However, within this extended range they also include items containing recycled plastic bottles.

At least they provide a solution to this – even though it costs £25 – the Guppyfriend Washing Bag collects microfibres and prevents them leaking into our waterways.

But not everyone will buy one of these. And it’s more ethical – and vegan – to ditch the plastic completely.

For a more detailed guide to vegan, plastic-free brands, see here.

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