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’

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.