Is Vegan Fashion Sustainable?


Just as there are political and religious divisions, there are opposing groups in the world of sustainability. Each believes they are more logical and justified than the other. I experienced an unexpectedly unpleasant exchange recently that made this reality plain as day. On the phone with a friend and animal rights activist, I hazarded a casual question: “Vegan isn’t really sustainable, is it?”

Her response was chilly to say the least.

And here I thought I was simply stating what we all know. Perhaps foolishly, I went on to share that I’d had a revelation just that morning that vegan fashion, comprised of mostly man-made materials, couldn’t possibly be eco – at least not exclusively so. How many of these vegan companies truly pay attention to good earth stewardship and use non-petroleum based materials, organic cottons and non-toxic dyes?

Save Bessie, great, but pollute groundwater, soil, air, all while supporting plastic manufacturing?

Maybe we environmental folks have more factions in the camp than we realize.

I’d like to ask in all earnestness, if you’re passionately vegan, why would you want to wear shoes that simulate the skins of animals? I understand the leather industry is a large contributor to climate change and water supply contamination, but similarly, these man-made materials are often harming the planet.

I started researching the most frequently used vegan materials to find out just how often.

Naugahyde: A brand name of pleather that combines textiles and polyurethane.

Lorica: A fabric made from microscopic animal shells or casings (external), coated with polyurethane.

Suedette: Made from cotton or rayon.

Ultrasuede: Combines a plastic polymer with micro fibers to create a durable, washable, breathable, lightweight fabric.

Birkiflor: An oil derivative used to make synthetic shoe uppers for Birkenstock. It is a combination of acrylic and polymer felt fibers that create a leather-like finish that is waterproof and breathable.

Vegetan: Available as Vegetan Active, Bucky and Micro, it is a combination of polyurethane and cotton.

Not all vegan shoes are made of synthetic leather. Other natural and organic alternatives are available, like hemp, cork, wood and linen.

Some of these vegan shoe and accessory lines have great missions and are becoming more eco-conscious but certainly they are few and far between. Here are four that stand out:

TOMS: Offers a vegan line made from a blend of recycled products, faux suede insoles and rubber outsoles. Not to mention the “One For One” campaign that gives a pair of shoes to a needy child in a developing country.

Neuaura: Recently awarded a Green Seal award for manufacturing based on compliance with Brazil’s environmental laws. This includes recycling and disposing all the material waste generated from the factory at a recycling facility located in the vicinity, using water-based adhesives and less toxic solvents and chemicals and advocating recycling and protection/preservation of endangered animals to their surrounding communities.

Olsen Haus: This company uses alternative, sustainable and renewable plant-based and man-made, non-animal materials such as ultra suede, organic cotton, canvas, nylon, velvet, linen, cork and synthetic eco-lining. 100% vegan: no leather, fur, wool or silk is ever used. Soles are a composite of rubber, glues are rubber-based and vegan and paint is vegan and non-toxic.

MELISSA: The eponymous shoe house has developed a recyclable plastic called Melflex that has flexibility for comfort. Their patented, hypo-allergenic PVC shoes are totally cruelty free and devoid of animal products. The Brazilian-based company recycles 99.9% of factory water and waste and they also go the distance by recycling overstock styles into next season’s collection.

We all have to consider our camps. Is your number one priority saving animals from cruelty or is it supporting sustainable fiber production? Maybe you are a protector of watersheds? How about manufacturing solely in the U.S.? And how do we do it all?

Image: JelleS’

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18 thoughts on “Is Vegan Fashion Sustainable?

  1. However, I think Steve makes a good point when he says that many vegans probably wouldn’t even bother wearing synthleathers if their employers didn’t expect it of them.

  2. I was an environmentalist long before I became vegan, and although I love my cruelty-free lifestyle, I too feel very put-off when other vegans get their panties in a twist if I dare mention that the plastic and petroleum materials they use are technically vegan but not eco-friendly.

    One would think that advocates of “compassionate living” would be concerned about the other human beings on this planet and the well-being of the environment, home to many of the animals vegans claim to care so much about.

  3. Hi Amy, would you please consider doing a proper lifecycle analysis of tanned leather vs. Lorica? If you factor in the land, water and feed necessary to raise one head of cattle and all of the transportation, water, processing and chemicals (often including petroleum and toxic chromium) needed to produce one yard of tanned leather – I think you will find that Lorica fairs pretty well. Sure, not perfect, but perfection is the enemy of good.

    Q: “I’d like to ask in all earnestness, if you’re passionately vegan, why would you want to wear shoes that simulate the skins of animals?”

    A: Those of us that choose not to consume or wear animal products still have to wear something to work. It’s not that we want to wear something that looks like leather, that’s just what society (and my employer) mandates. I can’t show up for a job interview in a pair for hemp clogs with cork soles.

    Some boutique companies are producing vegetable tanned leather but this is far from mainstream and it still begs the question, do you consider domesticated animals a systemic part of the environment we are trying to protect or a resource to be exploited for our consumption and fashion?

  4. I just finished polishing my vegan dress shoes, made from Lorica (which is not made from any animal casings or other parts), that I bought in 1997 and have worn for several months every year (I bought a second pair, expecting the first to eventually wear out). They still look almost new, despite that I’ve worn them enough that they’ve been resoled about six times now (lost count). Easily the most eco-friendly shoes that I’ve ever had.

    Before these, I had bought a pair of mid-high end leather shoes ($200 in 1996) that only lasted a year and were uncomfortable.

  5. Interesting and brave article.

    Synthetics are no better for the environment than the sometimes toxic tanning chemicals. However, natural tanning, such as vegetable tanning uses naturally occurring tannins (hence the name), rather than chromium (for example), but are dearer and take longer to tan.

    Arguably one substitutes one set of eco/ethical problems for another, as one poster says, a Vegan substitute is not necessarily a better one ecologically, although it might be on an animal cruelty basis. Then of course the argument for synthetic substitutes could be said to damage wildlife and habitats as a result of raw material acquisition etc not to mention the use of fossil fuel derivatives, even if by-products. Add to that, transportation of the items then you are in the same territory as any other product.

    Point being, that leather is not automatically a ‘bad’ product any more than a Vegan one is automatically a ‘good’ product, on ecological grounds.

  6. correction *Livestocks long shadow

  7. Dawn T: I recommend that you read UN’s 2006 report ” Licestocks Long Shadow” stating that the meat industry is one of the biggest contributors to some of most serious environmental problems. According to the report livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all transport combined.

    You are also forgetting that leather needs to be processed with toxic chemicals in order to be wearable (it would rot otherwise). So it is far from being all natural.

    I am sure that there are better ways to process leather without using dangerous chemicals, but there are also environmentally friendly ways to produce synthetic materials (besides natural materials such as organic cotton and hemp) by recycling already produced materials.

    Matt & Nat, for instance make bags from recycled plastic bottles and other non animal materials. Susan Nichole also sells fantastic environmentally friendly bags made from recycled materials.

    In the end, when all things are considered vegan production is more eco friendly and definitely more ethical, if you remember that real leather and fur come from living, breathing creatures that feel pain.

  8. Lorica is not made of animal casings – it wouldn’t be vegan if it was! It’s a synthetic material made by the Lorica company – see The manufacturer says it is composed of polyurethane and polyamide microfibre.

    Also, leather production doesn’t just cause water pollution, as this Ecologist investigation shows:

    Caitlin – there’s plenty of toxic chemicals used in the production of leather

  9. Thank you for doing the research on a topic I’ve pondered for a long time. I’ve always bought leather shoes not just out of preference but because I really didn’t think that the vegan alternatives could possibly be environmentally friendly. I’m not saying leather is eco but it does at least rot and it’s not made of petrochemicals.

  10. Yes, Karen, good to see we all struggle but also good to see a lot of people just doing their best.

    By our very existence on the planet we take from it but if we thought that was every time we move, we’d commit.

    Great job Elizabeth and Dawn!

  11. great article. Thank you for providing some examples as I’ve pondered this topic a lot yet never took the time to do some research. There are always trade-offs with each choice we make.

  12. I ponder this all of the time with many of the tradeoffs that I make in life in terms of being environmentally friendly as well as animal friendly. In short, the only way that I have been able to reconcile both of these is to reduce my consumption of raw materials. I try to swap or buy used/vintage for just these reasons. Vegan and Eco-friendly are not always the same things, but they can be if you choose to reuse.

  13. I LOVE love love this post. I think I do quite a bit to be “earth friendly”- I take 5 min luke warm showers, tote my own shopping bags, turn off the lights & down the thermostat, bike when it’s less than 2-3 miles and don’t drive my car at least one day per week. That said, the studies I’ve seen say that livestock accounts for only 3% of the US total of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. That seems a lot more environmentally friendly to me than manufacturing/ processing something “synthetic”

  14. Pingback: Is Vegan Fashion Sustainable? | VEGdaily


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