The vast majority of vegan animal rights campaigns focus on those individuals who are exploited and killed for food. This is of critical importance. More than 66 billion chickens are slaughtered for consumption annually. The lives and pains of fish are barely recognized. Pigs continue to be mutilated and confined even though understanding of their sentience has become mainstream.
Just as we all eat, we all get dressed, every single day. Whether or not we are interested in fashion, we are all connected to the fashion industry. When we buy and wear new clothes, we may financially contribute to and perpetuate speciesist practices and ideology. That’s why fashion needs to be included more seriously in the scope of animal activism.
Perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the disinterest in addressing fashion through activism is because other than in the case of fur, the use of animals by the fashion industry is considered a symptom of animal use for food. Materials like leather, wool, and down are commonly seen as “by-products” of the food system. This idea is problematic because it allows fashion companies to avoid responsibility for the exploitation and slaughter that they profit from.
Everyone has heard that leather is just a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, but when you dive deeper, you’ll find that the meat industry itself refers to leather as a “co-product.” When a by-product becomes profitable, it becomes a co-product. Plastic, for example, is a co-product of the oil refining process. Today, more oil is extracted from the earth for the sake of plastic. The fashion industry operates similarly, killing calves to help meet the demand for luxury leather.
Fashion profits off the meat and dairy industries
By next year, the global leather industry will be valued at nearly $128.61 billion. Not only does the leather industry profit from animal cruelty, but it essentially subsidizes the meat and dairy industries. Advocates continue to highlight the injustices which face male calves in the dairy industry, who as newborns are slaughtered because they will never produce milk. Without sex-specific artificial insemination, about 50 percent of calves will be males and will be slaughtered. To the industry, this is far from ideal, especially as veal falls out of food-fashion. Fortunately for them, the skins of calves are considered to be especially valuable, as they are softer and unmarked. The leather industry keeps the dairy industry from losing money by buying and slaughtering newborns.
Similarly, feather down, a perceived by-product of the duck meat and foie gras industries, is also valuable to the fashion industry. The wool industry, however, is often the primary reason for breeding and farming sheep. Today, the majority of sheep in Australia, the largest wool-producing country in the world, are known for their soft, expensive merino wool.
We often picture sheep frolicking in pastures for their entire lives, sometimes getting an occasional haircut. On the contrary, all wool-bearing sheep are considered “dual-purpose” by the industry, used for wool and meat. They are slaughtered once they are no longer profitable alive. Also, millions of newborn lambs die each year in the winter lambing season, and sheep continue to be subject to bloody mutilation like tail docking. The fashion industry must answer to these issues.
If we are to liberate sheep, cattle, ducks, and geese, we must dismantle all the systems which exploit, commodify, kill, and profit off of them. But the harm done by the fashion industry doesn’t end with these species. The industry is always expanding, producing more clothes, making more money for itself while destroying more of the planet. Sustainability and earth liberation are inherently tied up with animal liberation because land clearing, deforestation, and other environmental issues mean habitat loss, species endangerment, and ultimately extinction.
How do we make fashion more sustainable?
When we begin to think about the connection between animal agriculture and fashion, we should also consider their impact on the environment. The Higg Material Sustainability Index is the best way to evaluate the environmental impact of fashion designers and the materials they use. This tool measures the impact of material production and shows those materials made from animals to almost always be more destructive than anything else—even synthetic materials.
Land clearing is another unseen consequence of the fashion industry. The farming of cattle for leather and beef in Brazil, one of the largest bovine hide exporters, is the cause of 80 percent of Amazon deforestation. Similarly, 90 percent of deforestation in Queensland, Australia, a rich biome full of biodiversity, is due to sheep and cattle industries. Sixty-five percent of Mongolia’s native grasslands have been degraded largely due to the rampant, ever-growing, and slaughtering cashmere industry. Across these areas, animals like koalas, macaws, jaguars, and some monkeys and antelopes have lost their habitats and are endangered or vulnerable to extinction.
If animal activists supported and built campaigns that addressed fashion-fuelled industries built upon non-human (and often human) exploitation, we would see reduced suffering and progress towards a society that has evolved beyond industrialized, speciesist violence. A pressure campaign focusing on the impact of the wool industry, for example, could protect the safety and lives of sheep, as well as endangered species like koalas. Promoting awareness and accountability for the fashion industries is critical to animal liberation. At Collective Fashion Justice, this is exactly what we are working to do, but we need the movement’s help. Fashion advocacy needs to be more mainstream.
Emma Håkansson is the founder and director of Collective Fashion Justice which seeks to create a total ethics fashion system that prioritizes the life and wellbeing of non-human and human animals, as well as the planet, before profit and production. She has written countless articles on ethics, sustainability, and fashion, and has two books due out over the next two years.