How Sustainable Is Vegan Fashion? | Interview with Julia Zhorzel



Usually associated together, vegan and cruelty-free labels are not the same and we find ourselves questioning if vegan fashion is sustainable. Julia Zhorzel from PETA Germany shares her expertise on it.


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The sustainable revolution of fashion does not only occur singlehandedly but there are various ways and developments that take us to the future that the planet deserves. As brands and producers are primarily responsible to engage in this revolution, there is also an irrefutable responsibility that should be taken by the consumers. However, it is not always the easiest to be an eco-conscious consumer: One should be careful of a bunch of standards, especially when it comes to sustainable fashion. If not, the paradox of the eco-conscious occurs which is being experienced between vegan fashion and sustainability. Several arguments have developed throughout time where vegan fashion is blamed to be ‘unsustainable’. Especially pointing out the dualities between real and vegan leather, fur, and other byproducts related to animal cruelty – it is inevitable for the responsible consumer to experience confusion. We wanted to ask an expert about how to recognize sustainable aspects of vegan fashion compared to the non-vegan one. Julia Zhorzel, one of the Campaigns Coordinators at PETA Germany, enlightened us. Here is a vision-enhancing interview on vegan fashion.


L: Around the vegan and non-vegan fashion discussions, one of the hot topics emerges as the argument on real leather being more sustainable than vegan leather. Many exemplify these with vegan leather products often being made by PVC or PU and contributing to plastic pollution while real leather is biodegradable. Though it avoids cruel practices towards animals, today a lot of consumers are still doubtful about vegan leather in terms of sustainability at this point. What makes vegan leather still a better choice?

JZ: The leather industry often claims that leather is a “natural by-product”. In actuality, leather should be considered a co-product of a perpetually unsustainable industry. Leather is the skin of a dead animal, which in most cases is a highly chemically processed material. Only after running through 20 to 40 process steps -which involve dehydrating, pickling and degreasing, and tanning the skin with often toxic chemicals such as arsenic and chromium – the result is leather. While e.g. innovations in tanning processes may improve biodegradability, all manufacturing processes aim to deter an organic material – skin from a dead animal – from rotting, making it, therefore, less biodegradable. Furthermore, analogous to faux leather alternatives, substances like polyurethane, acrylic resins, and lacquers are regularly used to finish leather. Alongside these fossil-fuel-derived plastics, producers use non-biodegradable and toxic dyes. After being produced most animal leather is severely limited in terms of biodegradability, and recycling is not technologically feasible or economically viable. So used animal leather is currently either landfilled or incinerated. Thus, promoting leather as vastly different from synthetic alternatives is just plain consumer deception. Some sources even claim that composting the skins would be more environmentally friendly than turning them into leather. However, disposal costs money, so leather production exists for one reason only – financial gain. 

Additionally, the fashion industry – which is inextricably interwoven with animal agriculture – often tries to cover up its true environmental impact by emitting core data and numbers. This is done to deliberately attempt to deceive customers. A common smokescreen the leather industry uses is shifting the blame on the meat industry. The fashion industry’s calculations often don’t factor in their “cradle-to-gate” carbon footprint and broader environmental profile including the whole life cycle of an animal. However, leather is a for-profit business, and the entire leather supply chain, farms included, must be considered when exploring the environmental and ethical implications of fashion’s use of it. Raising the animals whose skin eventually becomes leather requires vast quantities of water and wide tracts of pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. In fact, in the last half-century, 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures or for growing feed crops. This mass deforestation causes habitat loss for millions of species, eliminates the Earth’s tree canopy, and drives climate change. Animal agriculture and its methane- and nitrous oxide–rich products, including leather, are leading contributors to climate change. Runoff from feedlots and dairy farms also creates a major source of water pollution. Leather has one of the greatest impacts on the eutrophication of all materials used for fashion, a serious ecological problem in which runoff waste creates an overgrowth of plant life in water systems, which suffocates animals by depleting oxygen levels in the water and is the leading cause of hypoxic zones, also known as “dead zones.” By some estimates, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. 

The most important difference between vegan and non-vegan leather is that it’s not made from the skin of dead animals. More than a billion cows, pigs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos, and even dogs and cats are cruelly slaughtered for their skins every year. The tails and horns of many of these animals are cut off without painkillers, and some are even skinned and cut apart while still conscious. By contrast, vegan leather offers a killer look without any killing. While vegan leather alternatives are not perfect yet concerning their point of total decomposition, accounting for all factors in comparison synthetic leather still has less emissions than cow skin leather. Moreover, development in this area is face-paced. Many companies are researching vegan leathers that don’t harm animals and the planet, such as Mirum®. The innovative leather-like material is entirely free from both animal and plastic inputs. Moreover, there are amazing plant-based fibers like linen, hemp, and organic cotton. In light of the highly detrimental and cruel leather industry, companies should focus on vegan and gradually more and more sustainable alternatives. 


L: Though a variety of brands are applying non-plastic production methods, do you think a major shift in vegan fashion brands from plastic to biodegradable or compostable sources will happen?

JZ: The tide is turning against animal-derived materials, and people—especially young consumers—now object in droves to supporting industries predicated on animal exploitation and slaughter. A recent survey found that approximately 73% of Gen Z identify as animal rights activists. Thus, a variety of new vegan materials, which also place an emphasis on sustainability, enter the market every year. Traditionally, the animal agriculture industry is highly subsidized, which makes animal products an unfair competitor to their alternatives. Under the pressure of being dependent on continual funding vegan companies run against the clock. Oftentimes a company’s success depends on whether it can scale up quickly. Therefore, buying and promoting vegan leather instead of animal skins is essential in securing financial autonomy and helps drive sustained research into viable, sustainable, and animal-free alternatives. 


L: The same discussion also exists around the fur. Some argue going for vintage fur is more sustainable. Do you think there is a non-cruel but sustainable way for consumers to have furs?

JZ: Wearing “vintage fur” sends the same unacceptable message as wearing newly sourced fur—that it’s OK to allow animals to languish in steel traps or be skinned alive for the sake of vanity. People can’t tell the fur’s backstory by looking at it, so wearing any fur is essentially a pro-fur billboard. Analogous to leather, the only way to wear the look of fur in a sustainable way is by choosing a company that sells sustainable and ethical faux fur. More sustainable options like faux fur based on hemp and Tencel are being developed right now and should be the main focus of fashion.


L: Consumers generally lack extensive knowledge about the practices of animals in the fashion industry. Can you tell us a little about how the mainstream fashion industry applies cruelty towards animals and what kind of a revolution is needed now


JZ: Globally billions of animals are exploited, abused, mutilated, and killed for clothing. Skin is torn from cows and other animals to make leather. For down ducks and geese are held down while handfuls of feathers are ripped out of their sensitive skin, often causing bleeding wounds. Animals on fur farms are caged in cramped filthy wire cages for life before being killed. Sheep are often beaten and mutilated by workers stealing their wool and their skin for shearling. Goats are similarly abused for cashmere and mohair. Moreover, most animals exploited in the fashion industry endure the horrors of factory farming: extreme crowding in filthy conditions and deprivation of any kind of autonomy and freedom, as well as so-called standard procedures like castration, branding, tail-docking, and dehorning—all without any painkillers. After a lifetime of torment, they’re violently slaughtered via the cheapest means possible, including bludgeoning, anal electrocution, and gassing. Some are even dismembered and skinned alive.Trapped animals used for their fur can suffer for days from blood loss, shock, dehydration, frostbite, and gangrene or be attacked by predators before trappers return to kill them. 

Governments, companies, and customers need to stop closing their eyes from the horrible nightmare, that is the reality of animals in animal agriculture. Animals aren’t commodities, but sentient beings, that feel pain and joy just like humans. Politicians need to – at the very least – level the playing field for vegan competitors, by stopping to subsidize animal exploitation and showing the real cost and suffering behind animal products. Moreover, innovative projects and exit bonuses for farmers should be incentivized, fostered, and promoted. Companies, by offering their products to drive the demand, need to significantly invest more in vegan alternatives – beyond humane- and green- washing-marketing-schemes. So-called animal welfare certifications – which are especially popular in Germany and the Netherlands – provide a smokescreen for what’s really happening in the industry. 

No label can provide animal welfare. The only compassionate decision customers should make is choosing products, which are vegan. This in turn helps making it financially more attractive for companies to provide those products. Also, we want to encourage customers to be mindful of their consumption patterns and not overconsume. Vegan alternatives like vegan leather can’t completely dissolve the climate issue, but they can provide a future where new clothing products aren’t reliant on the environmentally and ethically devastating practices of animal agriculture. 



L: Another problem in the industry is an incorrect association between vegan/cruelty-free brands and sustainability. How can consumers differentiate the vegan and sustainable brands from the others?


JZ: Animal agriculture is one of the main drivers of CO2 emissions and deforestation. Furthermore, farming animals for food, clothing, and other purposes also increases the risk of pandemics. Three out of every four emerging infectious diseases originate in animals. These types of pathogens are zoonotic, meaning that they form in animals and can be transmitted to humans. The majority of diseases that have caused epidemics or pandemics in recent years are zoonotic, including AIDS, avian flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19. In light of this, expert bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have long predicted that as long as humans continue to rely on animals for food and profit, pandemics are inevitable. Consumers, who would like to wear truly sustainable clothing should always focus on plant-based or bio-fabricated options and only buy clothing they really need. 


L: As PETA, you are one of the most reliable certification organizations. What are the achievements that PETA observes in the industry as a product of this certification of brands?

JZ: To remain competitive in the market, an increasing number of enterprises are seeking the PETA certification for their vegan products. With over 1000 certified companies, including renowned designers and popular high-street labels, there is a growing level of transparency and awareness in the fashion industry. The certification allows consumers to easily identify and choose products that meet their ethical preferences, helping them make informed choices when purchasing goods. This progress serves as the foundation for our organization to effectively work towards achieving our goals. As the momentum for vegan fashion continues to build, the positive impact on animal welfare and the environment becomes more evident, motivating us to strive further in promoting a vegan lifestyle. 


L: What are the key values that PETA applies and indicates around the certification system?

JZ: Our mission is centered around putting an end to animal exploitation, advocating for animal rights, and fostering compassion for all living beings. In the realm of fashion, our aim is to transform the industry into a vegan-friendly landscape. Our certification system ensures that no animals are harmed, exploited, or used. PETA expects brands to be transparent about their manufacturing processes and supply chains, ensuring that they adhere to cruelty-free and vegan standards. PETA also encourages brands to continuously improve their practices and transition to more sustainable and animal-friendly alternatives We aspire for consumers to easily discern, at first glance while shopping, whether a garment is truly vegan or if it incorporates animal skin, hair, or feathers. This transparency empowers them to make animal-friendly choices, and it also serves to enlighten those who may not have previously considered the topic. By showcasing the vast array of vegan fashion options available and shedding light on products that may conceal animal suffering.


L: Though a high number of consumers have progressed a lot in a short time, we still acknowledge people who approach vegan fashion with doubt. How do you think we can overcome the concerns such as ‘vegan fashion lacks the quality the non-vegan one ?

JZ: A lot of vegan products already offer high quality in terms of durability and style. However, as the scope of usability of vegan alternatives is still limited and not universal, companies should be transparent about what their products can offer. Consumer trust needs to be built by providing an accurate range of usability and not by making false promises. With time, more innovative vegan products will gradually fulfill consumers’ expectations not only with equal performance but better sustainability and a competitive value. 


L: Do you think trends and social media have a thing to do with it and how? 

JZ: In today’s world, it can’t be overlooked that trends and social media have a large influence on predominantly young people. Especially, when a product is marketed by a single or several celebrities/influencers, it can help generate a trend. The product then becomes emblematic of fitting into society. Owning the marketed item becomes equated to feeling like a celebrity yourself. Having that fact in mind PETA is engaged across all social media platforms inspiring our audiences to become vegan. For that purpose, we also partner with celebrities and influencers. With our content, we provide a significant part in providing to make a difference in the lives of animals. 


L: In what ways vegan fashion is doubtlessly more sustainable than non-vegan? 

JZ: Vegan fashion has many advantages, its main one being that it is cruelty-free. No animal is exploited, mutilated, and killed for faux leather, faux fur, or other innovative materials. In comparison, animal products are based on the exploitation of sentient beings and the environment. The future lies in vegan alternatives, which are eco-friendly, low waste-producing, biodegradable, and non-toxic. 


L: Can you tell a little about the recent and upcoming projects of PETA and how you envision the cruelty-free and sustainable future as an organization? 

JZ: With the help of our members and supporters, PETA and international PETA entities work globally to expose and end the use of animals in the fashion industry. Efforts include but are not limited to conducting groundbreaking undercover investigations to inform the public, working with celebrities and other activists on a wide variety of campaigns, holding colorful, eye-catching campaigns, protests outside stores, persuading legislative bodies to ban the farming and sale of fur and exotic skins, encouraging fashion designers, companies, and shoppers to use only vegan fabrics, buying stock in companies for the sole purpose of pressuring them to change, facilitating connections between major brands and vegan innovators, awarding innovative companies for creating new vegan materials and designs, partnering with compassionate designers, brands, and retailers on runway shows, exclusive vegan products, and many other exciting initiatives, hosting ethics and sustainability panels, promoting vegan options that are available from popular stores and brands and exposing the cruelty behind all animal-derived materials, including mohair, down, and shearling. This multifaceted approach secures life-saving victories for animals targeted by the deadly fashion industry, and soon, using animals for clothing and accessories will be a thing of the past. 

Recent Campaigns Recently, we published several investigations, done by PETA Asia, which documented the ubiquitous cruelty in the fashion industry. The recordings document, which cruelty the animals have to endure, just so that customers can wear their feathers or hair in a sweater. Furthermore, it unveiled that labels that promise “responsible” down or wool or nothing but sham certificates that serve only one purpose – the maximization of profits for the companies, who use them to dupe customers. 

Responsible Down Standard investigations 

For thirteen months, between November 2021 and November 2022, PETA Asia investigators visited duck farms and slaughterhouses in Vietnam connected to companies that sell “responsible” down, including GAP Inc., Guess, H&M, and dozens of others, exposing unspeakable cruelty to ducks. 

The disturbing cruelty that they uncovered shows why even so-called “responsible” down is never ethical or humane. Oscar winner and longtime vegan Joaquin Phoenix joined PETA to narrate a video about PETA Asia’s investigation revealing the unspeakable cruelty routinely carried out against ducks at “Responsible Down”–certified farms and slaughterhouses. At the farms visited by the PETA Asia investigators, ducks were crammed into filthy sheds and forced to live on wire flooring or confined to dirt lots strewn with feces. They were denied any opportunity to engage in their most natural and important behavior, such as bathing, swimming, flying, or foraging. Some were breathing with their mouths open, which is often a sign of stress, overheating, or respiratory infection. Others suffered from gaping, bloody wounds. Many had difficulty walking or were unable to stand up at all, possibly as a result of severe infections or fractured legs. A worker grabbed one immobile duck by the neck and tossed her aside. Dying birds were left to suffer, and the bodies of those who had died were often left in full view of the others. Companies like GAP Inc., Guess, and H&M were all identified as recipients of down from the RDS-certified suppliers investigated by PETA Asia, and it has been confirmed that all these companies obtain feathers from Vietnam and urged to out list down. The petition can be found on the page. 

SFA Good Cashmere Standard investigations

PETA Asia went undercover in Mongolia to expose lies about “sustainable” and “responsible” cashmere and the findings reveal that—no matter what sort of labeling is used—all cashmere comes from goats whose hair was violently stolen from them before they were slaughtered. Between April 2022 and February 2023, PETA Asia’s investigators visited cashmere operations in Mongolia—including one herding operation with ties to clothing companies such as Naadam, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Chanel, Burberry, and Bottega Veneta. Investigators discovered the following: 

  • Workers pinned goats down by their legs and horns and ripped out their hair—all while the animals screamed in pain and fear.  
  • A herder used an unsterilized knife to cut open goats’ scrotums and pulled out kids’ testicles with his bare hands and without pain relief.  
  • Pieces of the animals’ skin were pulled away with the cashmere.  
  • Goats were left to suffer from bleeding wounds.  
  • There were multiple dead animals on site, including a goat found dead the day after the animal had been seen sick or injured, limping around a pen, and kids who likely died due to extreme cold or hunger Implicated companies were asked to out list cashmere immediately. The petition can be found on the page. In light of these discoveries, it needs to be emphasized that the documented cruelty is however not limited to luxury brands. It’s a systemic issue, making cashmere a product of cruelty no matter, which company sells it. Fast fashion brands and retail stores like C&A also regularly use cashmere in their collections – while not being implicated in the recent investigations C&A also has ties to the SFA.  

PETA US launched Vegan Wool Challenge Disturbing eyewitness video footage gathered in 14 PETA exposés of 117 wool operations on four continents reveals that workers in the global wool industry beat, stomp on, kick, mutilate, and throw terrified sheep. This abuse is knitted into the wool coats, hats, socks, and other garments sold in stores. Because there’s a market for their fleece and skin, these sensitive animals are treated as mere wool-producing machines. Although plenty of durable, stylish, and warm vegan fabrics are already available, PETA US set out to save sheep by encouraging the development of a vegan wool material that is visually, texturally, and functionally akin to or better than sheep’s wool. That’s why the organization was offering a $1 million award to the first entrant who creates such a material and has it adopted and sold by a major clothing brand. Samples had to be submitted by July 28th, 2023. After an evaluation phase, the results will be published.


Highlight Image: Johannes Pokorn © via Unsplash


Tolga Rahmalaroglu

Luxiders Magazine Contributor