Counterproductive bans will hinder, not help, the rise of vegan clothing

A couple of years ago, I made the decision to switch to vegetarianism, and I’ve done a pretty good job of sticking with it ever since. I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where veggie alternatives are available and easily accessible, making it far easier to cut meat out of my diet.

While it’s not been too much of a challenge to stop eating meat, clothing myself is far trickier. It’s easy to swap minced beef for quorn, chicken breast for halloumi, or meatballs for mushrooms. It’s another thing to swap leather for, well, faux-leather.

It’s for this reason that I can’t quite get myself on board with calls to ban the use of animal products in fashions. As much as I look forward to the day when such options are widely-available, affordable, and good-quality, I’m just not sure we’re there yet.

One reason for this is, quite simply, the price. While veganism and vegetarianism are certainly in-vogue at the moment, the ‘cruelty-free’ fashion trend is still in rather early days. Many luxury brands, including a new endeavour from Stella McCartney, have begun selling such garments at fittingly luxurious prices.

Cheaper alternatives, sadly, struggle to match the quality of their real-leather counterparts. Trying to find a pair of decent veggie winter boots that won’t break the bank is a challenge worthy of Greek mythology (if the Golden Fleece was made of a vegan wool-substitute).

Moreover, veggie alternatives to leather, fur, and the like remain environmentally unfriendly. Commonly used materials in vegan clothing, such as PVC and polyurethane, can spell disaster for the environment, with these two materials being non-biodegradable.

It can be tricky to work out which option is going to be the more animal-friendly. Leather boots, naturally, are going to need at least one cow to pop his clogs. But the “cruelty-free” alternative could linger around on the ocean floor long after we’re gone, doing untold damage to the local marine life.

When it comes to clothing and fashion, it becomes far tougher to apply any single vegan or vegetarian ethos. Cutting out animal products from your wardrobe won’t necessarily eliminate any damage or harm to animals, and we currently shouldn’t expect expensive, good quality vegan alternatives to be available to everybody.

Of course, the key word here is “currently”. I have no doubt that, in the near future, the market for vegan clothing will become cheaper, of better quality, and more environmentally-friendly. So long as people keep demanding these alternatives, products are going to improve and become more generally available.

But this can’t be rushed. Companies like BooHoo, for instance, may have good intentions when they decide to internally ban the use of animal products such as wool, following the arguments made by NGOs such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but this isn’t necessarily the best decision when it comes to promoting a sustainable fashion industry that is both environmentally and animal-friendly.

Naturally, companies should be completely free to decide what they want to sell. If they wish to promote a cruelty-free alternative, however, the emphasis should be placed on choice, rather than blanket bans. Simply removing the non-vegan option willy-nilly could have disastrous effects both on consumers and producers alike, potentially pushing the price of clothing up and depriving many local communities in developing countries of their income.

Offering the choice is the best route to take here. British footwear manufacturer Doc Martens, for instance, offers a wide range of both vegan and non-vegan leather boots, allowing customers the option to decide for themselves. In doing so, the company can continue to promote and develop a cruelty-free alternative, without resorting to kneejerk bans and the unintended consequences that come with them.

Moreover, companies should seek to better inform consumers about where the materials are coming from. Companies such as Furmark, for instance, work to assure buyers that their coats were made sustainably, and in a way that met strict standards of animal welfare. While I’m personally no fan of the fur trade, allowing consumers the information over how animal materials are procured enables a far more informed choice, and prevents unethical or unsustainable practices.

Personally, I’m thrilled to see a discussion around the ethics of animal products in fashion become mainstream, and I look forward to the day when vegan alternatives are affordable and sustainable.

We might even be closer to this day than we think, with companies like Marks and Spencer now selling vegan clothing at more affordable prices. New initiatives such as this are wonderful signals of a more-conscious consumer base, and should be welcomed. Bans, however, will do little to make vegan fashion affordable and sustainable. Informed consumers, and the choices they make, are the best motors towards truly cruelty-free fashion.