When you think of veganism, you probably assume “healthy,” “organic,” “sustainable,” and “safe.” You’re not the only one; I also believed that this was the case initially. While being vegan is a positive step to protect the planet when eating and dressing, consumption of vegan materials — outside of organic foods and textiles — is not as sustainable as we might think.
Veganism has experienced exponential growth over the past five years. Veganuary alone saw a record-breaking 250,000 participants throughout the month of January 2019, with six out of 10 participants surveyed keen to continue practicing veganism. Although there are no authoritative statistics for the total number of vegans in the world, the U.K. alone is reported to include 600,000 vegans and 25% of people aged 25-34 in the U.S. reportedly identify as vegan or vegetarian.
What does that look like in growth? Participation in Veganuary continues to break records annually with the ongoing growth of veganism. From 2018 to 2019, involvement increased by 81,810 people to reach 250,610 participants. Between 2014 and 2017, the lifestyle grew by 600%. The statistics tell us that veganism isn’t stopping.
Veganism as a practice is great — 1 billion Hindus have led the way for millennia. The rise of Western veganism shows that our culture is beginning to understand and reduce its impact on the environment. We’re eating organic foods, wearing clothing made from organic textiles, talking about these changes on social media, as well as reducing, reusing, recycling, and more. We can also be more active to raise awareness of cultural/social issues across the world.
The challenge for veganism as a sustainable practice is the use of alternative, non-animal-based materials. Many of these materials — used in products like clothing, rugs, handbags, and furniture — are unsustainable and have a negative environmental impact.
Veganism Doesn’t Solve Our Environmental Impact
Even though the veganism philosophy eschews the consumption of animals for food, clothing, and other purposes, the animal-free alternative products are not always best for the environment. If vegan consumers don’t focus on purchasing organic and fair trade food and textiles, then the food and textiles being consumed are impacting natural habitats and human livelihoods, and animal welfare suffers from a secondary impact: pesticides and herbicides. These toxic chemicals affect more than their intended targets. They can spread beyond the farms where they are applied to nearby agricultural lands and bodies of water, contaminating crops, water supplies, wildlife, and humans.
The production of animal-free materials, such as vegan leather, also can harm the environment. Vegan leather is a synthetic commonly composed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane —both petroleum-based plastics. Furthermore, during the production process, water is polluted with chemical dyes that leak back into the soil and harm the environment through second-hand means. However, animal welfare concerns aside, the processing of animal leather also has serious environmental and health impacts.
Cotton, linen, and bamboo have their own issues. They use less water and pesticides — no pesticides if they are truly vegan — but the harvesting and transportation of these textiles can do much environmental harm. For example, GMO cotton dominates 99% of the cotton market. Traditionally farmed, the production of this cotton involves the use of insecticides and pesticides, which are harmful to farmworkers, wildlife, the environment, and our waterways.
Often, farms are forced to buy GMO seeds by seed producers who partner with pesticide companies to deliver a pest-resistant crop each year. But these seeds often come at a higher cost-to-sale and lower plot success rate for farmers compared to organic cotton seeds. Farmers are often not able to purchase the correct personal protective equipment to avoid contact with insecticides and pesticides throughout the farming process, which contributes to skin irritations, mental health issues, and in some cases, cancer.
Sustainability — the Next Steps for Veganism
With non-sustainable textiles dominating the market, non-organic fashion already contributes to 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. And the fashion industry alone is expected to grow by 63% between 2017 and 2030.
This is why a trend towards earth-friendly materials is vital. Sustainable materials are far greener, using animal-cruelty-free, recycled, and organic materials that consume less water and use no harmful chemicals during the farming and production process.
The production of organic cotton, for example, requires 88% less water than non-organic cotton — and without the pesticides contaminating the excess water during production. All natural fabrics —including cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo — are biodegradable, so could potentially be composted, if not recycled.
Sustainability requires moving past labels to careful disclosure of the impacts of products made without animal content. For example, waxed organic cotton is a more sustainable, cruelty-free, and far less environmentally harmful alternative to vegan leathers. Organic materials are more sustainable than their counterparts. The lack of toxins; reduced water consumption for cultivation; no pollution of soil, air, or water; and more sustainable financial livelihoods for farms are among their benefits.
Imagine sleeping in higher-quality, softer, and safer organic bedding that hasn’t been produced using toxic chemicals. It’s purer and cleaner, better for your skin and lungs. Expect your skin conditions to be less irritated and expect to be less tired. But most of all, consider the impact sustainable, organic cotton has on everything it touches: the farmers, the soil, the animals, and their surrounding habitats. Sustainability goes far beyond animal welfare — it’s Earth welfare. And for the future of our kids and their kids, now is the time to act, now is the time to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
About the Author
Lewis Young is an online writer with over five years of experience writing within the fashion, sustainability, MuTech, manufacturing, legal, and dating niches. He is currently starting his MA degree in Advertising Strategy and Planning and has traveled all over Europe in search of the best coffee known to man.
Feature image: PublicDomainArchive from Pixabay