‘What’s the Stitch?’ is a new monthly column by Emma Jones-Phillipson about dressing sustainably in our modern age. She’ll pair critical insights into the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry with useful guides to conscious buying, wearing, and mending clothes. Don’t fret about losing an edge on your style though, none of Emma’s advice will have you sacrificing sartorial quality or consumer sanity. This month, for October’s Vegan Challenge, Emma looks at creating a vegan wardrobe. 

If you’re already familiar with eating vegan, dressing vegan follows similar principles. Considered fundamentally, it could mean joining nudist colonies for the sake of the planet in order to avoid animal impacts. But not taken to such an extreme, it means excluding materials made from, or produced by, animals such as fur, leather, exotic skins, suede, feathers, silk, wool, mohair, cashmere, shearling, alpaca, angora, and down…

Aside from the ethical justifications for cutting out these products, these materials also have broader environmental impacts. There are the usual culprits of animal agriculture such as greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water usage, massive feed inputs etc. as well as the pollution, potentially toxic chemical treatment and finishing processes of making clothes.

There are many alternatives to these materials, especially in our modern industrial age of innovation. Some of these are familiar and easily accessible (cotton, polyester, satin, faux fur, pleather) and some are recent innovations that you may not have encountered yet (pineapple leather anyone?).

Be on the look-out for sustainably produced natural materials

But, don’t think that shopping vegan absolves you of the usual sustainability pitfalls. We should all be well familiar with the environmental and social costs of Fast Fashion, the lightning-fast, disposable trend cycle pushed by ethically-dubious, low-cost (and low quality) retailers. We also shouldn’t forget that man-made synthetics are often just a few degrees of separation from the single-use plastics we abhor in other aspects of our lives. Rather be on the lookout for sustainably produced natural materials like cotton, linen, hemp, rayon, bamboo, or cork or try out a new innovative product; you may not be able to tell the difference between it and an animal product.

Another alternative is thrifting or recycled post-consumer materials, and this is where things get murky for me. I usually consider myself a sustainable dresser: most of my capsule wardrobe (and household furnishing) is thrifted, vintage, swapped or homemade with the few new elements all being ‘bought to last’ and ideally locally produced.

In our developing context high quality and sustainable vegan alternatives may be hard to come by

But, this has created an ethical and environmental conundrum: in order for me to get the most out of my wardrobe (to have it wear and last well), I will often be deliberately non-vegan! Let me explain: whilst I have my fair share of natural fibre garments and would never wear fur or exotic skin, I will often cherry-pick thrifted, vintage or new items made from silk, leather or wool because I know and trust these materials to look good, last well, and age beautifully. In doing so, this reduces the number of items I would need in a lifetime. But in our developing context where high quality and sustainable vegan alternatives may be hard to come by (or prohibitively expensive), where is the ‘right’ side of the debate in consuming these animal materials (especially secondhand) as a trade-off to poorly made and mass-produced new vegan synthetics?

I won’t try to answer this definitively, as it’s an issue I continue to struggle with and I think it depends on your ethical and environmental priorities, but it’s certainly some (plant-based) food for thought.

So what to do? How can you wear more vegan?

-Check your labels to see what materials went into your items, they’re usually found on the inside seams of garments or on the inner heel/tongue of shoes

-On shoes this information may be in symbol form: Not vegan: A puzzle piece kind of shape = leather or suede | Vegan: A weave pattern = textile (can be natural or synthetic), a diamond covers other materials (rubber, plastic, etc.)

-If you don’t know what a material is, there’s no shame in googling it!

-While you’re checking labels, see where your item was made. Is it local?

-If your conscience prevents you continuing to wear non-vegan items you already own, then pass them on (ideally sustainably by donating, swapping or conscientiously disposing) but you don’t necessarily need to feel guilty about not feeling guilty about wearing your favourite thrifted wool coat. Especially if the alternative is going out and buying a brand-new item.

-Seek out local producers that are working in vegan materials, or just stick to organic plant-based materials (cotton, linen, hemp, rayon, bamboo, cork etc.)

-Don’t forget to consider the environmental impact of your vegan replacements – just because they’re not animal-based, doesn’t mean they don’t have negative footprints: polyester is still plastic after all.

Next month we’ll be diving into the false economies of buying cheap and the benefits of ‘buying to last’ with some practical advice on keeping your favourites looking great for years to come.

Image: Lydz Leow/Unsplash