Cruelty-free and Vegan Fashion: a Beginner Guide
Looking for a way to dress without harming animals? Congrats, you’re in the right place! In this article we’ll go through the whos, the whys and the whats of vegan clothing and cruelty-free fashion. Doing no harm isn’t hard, especially over the last few years: the cruelty-free vision has spread to many industries such as fashion, beauty, and household. First, let’s address some of the most common questions about vegan fashion.
Are “cruelty-free” and “vegan” the same thing?
Not quite. The two definitions (cruelty-free fashion and vegan fashion) often refer to the same thing: clothes that were made without any material deriving from animal parts. Wool, leather, silk and down are excluded from this definition.
If we analyze the two definitions though, we’ll find the differences: cruelty-free might refer to animal-derived products that were produced in a friendly environment for the animals, “without the cruelty” usually involved. For example, cruelty-free silk might refer to real silk that was obtained without killing the larvae (also called peace silk); cruelty-free wool might refer to real wool that was produced in farms that don’t use cruel techniques such as mulesing (Stella McCartney calls her wool “cruelty-free wool”).
When we use the word vegan instead, we refer to materials and clothes that don’t contain any animal derived material and that weren’t produced involving any animal. Veganism per se is the philosophy of not exploiting animals for literally anything, be it food, fabric or labor of any kind. So when we say vegan clothing, we’re talking about clothes made of non-animal derived materials.
The only way you can be 100% sure of what you’re buying is to check the label. When buying online and offline, you could also look for the PETA-Approved Vegan logo, or The Vegan Society sunflower trademark.
Can I dress vegan without being vegan?
The short answer: hell yes!
You can do whatever feels better to you. No one will judge you (and if they do, screw them). There might be plenty of reasons why you don’t follow a vegan diet, whether it’s because of your culture, health or something else. We all started somewhere, and doing something is better than doing nothing. If you feel like you want to ditch the cruelty in your wardrobe, go for it!
Very few people were vegetarian since birth, let alone vegan: it’s a process, and as such, it must start somewhere (and if it stops there, it will always be better than not doing anything because you couldn’t do it all, right?)
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Is buying vegan complicated and expensive?
The idea of not using animals for clothes is relatively recent: it was only over the last 10 years that the fashion industry started questioning the ethical side of clothing when it comes to animals.
This means a few things: we are far from having all brands, shops, and boutiques ditching leather and wool from their collections. It also means that the vast majority of consumers are still buying those products, and they outnumber the percentage of consumers that go for more ethical choices.
This is the scenario: not many people buy vegan, so vegan brands don’t produce on a large scale, therefore production is more expensive, making products slightly more expensive.
Vegan brands are often also careful about the ethical treatment of their workers and about being sustainable for the environment. They avoid outsourcing production to sweatshops in developing countries and they use materials that are environmentally friendly (this makes manufacturing more expensive for them than most popular brands, and it also means they don’t use cheap materials such as PVC, or prefer organic cotton over cotton).
Of course, vegan doesn’t always mean ethical and sustainable, so if you also care about these last two, you should always dig a little deeper.
Is it complicated? Well, it requires a little more attention on your part. When buying from “regular” shops and brands, always check the label.
Of course, you’ll be in for some disappointment when you finally found the coat of your dreams only to find out it has 30% wool in it. Or when you’d kill for that pair of shoes, but they’re made of real leather. Thank God there are new cool vegan fashion brands coming up every day!
Buying vegan per se is not complicated, buying vegan, sustainable and ethical at the same time might be more challenging. That’s why I created a list of brands you can refer to so you can easily find what you’re looking for without much effort:
Receive the complete and always growing list of vegan clothing brands for free:
Vegan Fashion: Materials Do’s and Don’ts
Here we are, the meat and potatoes of this article (I know, poor pun for an article about vegan fashion). How do you know if a material is vegan or not? How do you know what words you should look for in labels so that you can avoid buying cruelty ridden clothes?
Fur is the most obvious non-vegan material that has progressively lost its popularity even among omnivores. The reason is that a lot of cute animals and wild animals are killed for their fur; animals that people don’t usually eat. That’s what creates the connection for most people: “how could you eat it – it’s cute – killing it for its fur is cruel – I’m against fur”.
Some of the most popular animals for fur are coyotes, foxes, chinchillas, minks, and rabbits (rabbits are also killed for their meat, but many people don’t eat their meat because they had one when they were a child or because they are too cute).
Coyotes are not very different from dogs, which makes it hard to know where that hood fur trim really came from (especially when fur is sourced from farms in countries where the legislation is unclear).
There’s nothing ethical (or logical for that matter) about fur: animals are farmed and killed only for their fur (which is skin with hair still attached). I’m sure it makes sense at the North Pole, and that it made sense 2-300 years ago, but we know better now (and we have plenty of materials that can replace fur).
When you find these words on a label, steer clear of that item:
- Marten/Pine Marten
- Persian lamb
The reason why you read Astrakhan or Persian Lamb on the list is that these animals are used for shearling. Shearling is not like wool, this is a common misconception. Shearling is exactly like fur, it’s the veal that comes with skin attached (the infamous Winter boots covered with wool are made with shearling, not wool).
The only fur that is safe is when you read on the label one of these: acrylic, polyester, hemp.
Leather is the second most obvious non-vegan material. Everyone knows you are to kill an animal to use its skin! The reason why most people still use it is that they eat that animal, so it’s only natural to use the skin and not throw it away. This is also a misconception: first, the meat industry wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for the alternative uses of what it discards.
Second, many animals that we don’t commonly eat are used for their skin: horses, alligators, crocodiles, zebras, sharks, dolphins, snakes, goats, oyster, deer and kangaroos.
Also, the most luxurious types of leather come from babies. Yep, it is as awful as it sounds: calves are forcefully taken from their mother wombs and killed before they are born to obtain a very soft kind of leather, calfskin.
Here’s a list of the most common leather definitions:
- Calf slink/Slunk Skin/Slink Skin
- Buckskin (deerskin)
- Brained Leather
- Patent Leather
- Raw Hide
- K-Leather (Kangaroo Leather)
- RKT (Rubberized Kangaroo Technology)
When you see something that looks like leather, these are the safe materials on the label you should read:
- Paper Vellum. Imitation vellum (made from wood pulp or cotton finer)
- Glazed Cotton
- Recycled Rubber
- Recycled PET
- Polyurethane (Brentano produces a degradable polyurethane for upholstery called Jetset)
- Microsuede microfiber
- Vegetan (a microfiber made from acrylic and polyamide)
- Cork leather
- Lorica leather
- Barkcloth (Derived from the bark of the Mutuba tree in Uganda, it’s just as tough as leather)
- Pinatex (It’s made from pineapple’s leaves)
I didn’t include PVC in the safe materials list because even though it’s vegan, it’s one of the most detrimental materials for the environment.
Sometimes we don’t think about it, I surely didn’t know about how silk was made before my studies in fashion design. It should be obvious, but sometimes the most obvious things are the ones you don’t question. Silk is an extremely cruel material and the fact that the animals who die in the process aren’t mammals doesn’t make it any less cruel.
Silk is the thread that surrounds the larvae of the Bombyx Mori moth. In order to not break the fiber, larvae are steamed alive and the cocoon is reeled.
There are some ways to produce silk that don’t involve steaming or gassing the larvae for their cocoon, but they still involve the death of many animals (a fertilised moth lays 500 eggs: most of those have to be culled in farms anyway).
The conclusion is that silk is not entirely cruelty-free and definitely not vegan. The only “safe” silk is synthetic silk-like materials like:
- Sabra silk (also called Cactus silk or Agave silk)
Wool is one of those materials that are not 100% perceived as cruel. The common belief is that sheep and goats need to be shorn in order to be healthy: this might be true now because humans bred them and mixed them in order to get more “furry” species. However, without humans intervention, they wouldn’t need to be shorn at all and most of them still don’t.
Wool is not vegan, that’s obvious, but it’s also not cruelty-free. The wool industry can be very cruel: sheep are amassed in small spaces, they are often shaved before it’s time (before the warm season), they are scared to death, flipped over and generally mistreated in order to shave them quickly.
Another ugly practice is mulesing: in order to prevent flies from hatching eggs in the sheep’s skin, farmers cut a large strip of skin away from the sheep’s buttocks and around its tail.
Some brands use wool that comes from factories that don’t practice mulesing, and they call this cruelty-free wool. It’s up to you to choose and to discern if you want to use wool or not.
Here’s a list of the most common wool definitions (you might not find the word “wool” on labels):
- Tibetan fur
These are the items typically made using wool:
- Winter coats
- Boho textiles (pillow covers, carpets)
- Carpets in general
- Winter boots
- Winter slippers
- Men suits
Last but not least, down. How often do we think that geese are actually treated cruelly to give us those warm jackets and bed duvets? Not that often. In fact, I have only realized it myself after I started researching about leather, wool and all the other cruel materials.
Ducks and geese are kept in horrible conditions, down often comes from unregulated countries where their beaks are cut off. They are kept far from their natural habitat (water) and they often die of various diseases and starvation. Not to mention feather plucking is painful and leads to “freeze deaths” too.
I think down jackets smell weird and also occasionally sting and scratch you (all down filled jackets will start losing feathers at some point!)
Confused? Here’s a quick list of ultra-safe materials. Check the label, if you find these, you’re good to go!
Animal-friendly, eco-friendly and environmentally safe materials:
- Organic cotton
- Polar Fleece
- Recycled PET
Where do I find vegan clothing? Good question! I am constantly working on growing this comprehensive list of ethical, vegan and sustainable brands. Download it below and happy shopping!
About the Author
Hey, it's Elisa, founder of styleonvega.com. I'm a social media strategist & consultant by day and blogger by night (honing my multitasking skills since 2006 ;). I'm an atypical Italian, freedom lifestyle advocate and modern spirituality enthusiast. Feel like we could get along? Join me just above this box or get in touch with me on Facebook or Twitter.