Vegan Winter Wear
Lila Pitcher explores the cruelty-free and environmentally-conscious options out there for dressing warm through Aotearoa’s winter months.
As we reluctantly turn on our heaters and wave goodbye to the sun, vegans are confronted with some hard shopping choices. It’s no news that buying clothes as a plant-based believer involves more than aesthetics — the simple search for a new coat often turns to chin-rubbing research around environmental impacts, animal rights and worker conditions.
Winter has demands for practicality and warmth that make matters more complicated than shopping for water times. How can we buy ethically when staying warm means using fur, feathers and other animal products? Let’s have a look at some winter wardrobe staples and how you can find options that can meet your individual vegan needs.
Fur the love of it
Fur has been used lavishly for generations as a mark of fashion and wealth but, much like iconic fur-fan Cruella de Vil, the material isn’t kind to animals. Fur has seen a huge decline in popularity since conversations around unethical trapping, the rise of veganism and celebrity disapproval. In 2018, hand in hand with London Fashion Week’s ban on fur, many luxury brands turned to alternatives. And while these, such as faux-fur, are easily accessible, they are not without their own problems.
Fake-fur is made from acrylic, a material fabricated out of non-renewable resources that can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Keith Kaplan, director of communications at the Fur Information Council of America, states: “Right off the top, petrol-based plastic fur is extremely harmful to the environment. It isn’t biodegradable. It’s harmful to wildlife.” So, while faux-fur may get the tick for animal rights, it is also directly harmful to the planet.
Many fur advocates have defended their case claiming that the best solution is to buy a fur-made garment with the intent of keeping it for life. Others state that trapping animals such as beavers and foxes helps manage overpopulation. The debate is varied and controversial, with lots to think about, including the environmental impact of manufacturing the items, from dyeing to dressing.
Perhaps the clearest path is to simply leave both fur and faux-fur behind entirely, as it is an aesthetic choice rather than a practical one. Warmth and style can both be achieved with winter clothing of a less controversial nature.
Down with down?
Down, the fluffy feather under the exterior coating of a goose, is commonly used in jacket linings and known for its warm qualities. Down has a lot going for it: It regains its original shape when compressed, weighs next to nothing, and retains warmth like no other insulator. But what is the moral cost behind these super feathers?
Good news first — no ducks are raised specifically for feather collection and most down is collected from animals bred for meat. However, some farms have been revealed to force-feed ducks or live pluck them, a process in which feathers are taken out while the animal is alive. To give an idea of the pain involved, this would feel like your hair being pulled out in handfuls.
In response, many brands have set up their own standards for down: policies scrutinising both the processes involved and the parent farms where the animals spend most of their time. While these standards do, in theory, mean less suffering for the animal in general, down remains a byproduct of the meat industry and animal exploitation.
Alternatives to down do exist in the form of polyester, widely used for its waterproof features. This synthetic material, however, is made out of petroleum and spun using chemicals which makes it an environmentally harmful choice. Other aspects to take into account when shopping for these jackets are the shells, made from a variety of plastic. If you can, opt for recycled polyester as a first choice and buy from companies with sustainable values.
Wool is one of the oldest textiles used by man in history. It originates from days where sheep were plentiful and other types of fabric were not. Wool has been used for centuries but does that mean we should be producing and using it in the ways we are today?
Wool is a renewable resource, meaning it is an animal-derived fiber that is hugely biodegradable. It has natural antimicrobial features which means it doesn’t need as many washes. What’s more, it isn’t processed with chemicals nor crude oil. At first glance, wearing wool is great for the environment. However, as most will know, sheep gobble up land. Livestock grazing leads to environmental degradation and unwanted methane gas being released (sheep contribute around 12% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Ministry for the Environment) .
Sheep welfare is also a debated issue in the wool clothing department. Thanks to pressure from animal welfare groups, New Zealand has become a world leader in banning some of the cruelest practises of the wool industry, with the Animal Welfare Act prohibiting practices like mulesing (a painful shave of the sheep’s behind) used in other countries. This practice was banned in 2018 but wool production is by no means a cruelty-free industry, as illustrated by the many stories of abuse and mistreatment of farmed sheep that continue to occur.
Alternatives to wool do exist, of course. And while a lot, similarly to fur and down, are made out of polyester, there are many natural fabrics that can serve as fine replacements. Some common options include organic cotton and linen, with materials like hemp and bamboo beginning to surge as popular environmentally friendly options.
Take it slow
Though they may not yet be as omnipresent as conventional fast fashion output, there are plenty of winter wear options out there for the vegan community that don’t hurt animals, workers or the planet. Debates around these items are complex and multi-faceted, involving a number of intersecting values.
If, for example, you place a premium on reducing your environmental impact, you’ll want to buy second-hand and look for long-lasting products from local brands. For those concerned with workers rights, the conditions, safety, wages and rights of the people involved in production need to be assessed, in terms of both the company and country that produces the goods. And if animal welfare is at the forefront of your mind, you will want to do plenty of research into the fabrics and materials going into your purchases.
We recommend that you consider your next purchase an opportunity to learn more about your favourite brands and their products. The aid organisation Tearfund (tearfund.org.nz) produces an annual Ethical Fashion Guide that rates locally available brands on a number of measures, which can be invaluable when window shopping. Take the time to really consider your fashion purchases, just like you would for a new computer: Linger on the specs, manufacture processes and certifications to find a long-lasting, practical and ethically produced item you can adore.
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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