Two major reports released within the fashion industry over the last 12 months are damning for businesses that profit from animal fibers like leather, silk, cashmere and wool – and it’s also pretty critical of conventional cotton. These reports come at a crucial time for an industry that has had a serious lack of concrete data from which to draw, for which Alden Wicker at Racked made a compelling case earlier this year. “One reason for this ignorance might be that scientists and advocates tend to look down on fashion,” said Wicker.
The report gave a failing grade of 32 out of 100 to the fashion industry – a weak pulse indeed – using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index as a data set source and a cradle-to-gate analysis of materials, which places the burden of responsibility on the producers, not the consumers. This is a welcome shift from an emphasis on expecting shoppers will buy less, wash on cold, hang dry, repair, recycle and dispose conscientiously – activities that are difficult to measure, let alone enforce.
Among the report’s fierce call-to-actions and startling projections is a conclusion that’s not sitting well with animal agriculture industries.
3 of the 4 worst materials for the environment, per kilogram, are derived from animals, according to the research.
Cow leather takes the prize for most damaging, with silk being a close second. Not surprisingly, conventional cotton comes in third, followed up by wool, just behind in fourth. So what are the remaining 10 materials in the rankings with the smallest impacts? Human-made fibers.
Materials like PU leather are found to have less than half of the environmental impacts as their animal-derived counterpart, shedding much light on the heated debate regarding the sustainability of vegan leather versus cows’ skins. Likewise, acrylic, polyester, spandex and rayon fibers are significantly less damaging than wool and silk, according to the research. The popular binary of ranking synthetics as the lesser of two main fiber categories (with the other being “natural” fibers) appears to be incorrect, at least from a sustainability standpoint.
Materials like PU leather are found to have less than half of the environmental impacts as their animal-derived counterpart.
The wool industry – an industry that relies upon a perception of sheep hair as a natural, traditional and sustainable fiber, did not take it’s ranking well in the report, and the International Wool Textile Organization released a public criticism regarding what it saw as missing data, the end-life of plastics and fast-fashion. The Pulse report’s authors quickly responded in-depth to the criticism in an interview with Ecotextile News:
“We stand by our belief that the material mix can benefit from new innovative man-made fibres… However, we must keep in mind that scarce soil might have to be used for food growing for a mounting population of up to 8.5 billion people, so it might not be available for cotton growing or sheep farming.”
By implementing positive changes, the report estimates almost $190 billion in annual value for the world economy by 2030. That’s a lot of incentives for innovation.
KERING WEIGHED IN
Another report, released by the luxury fashion conglomerate Kering in 2016, came to similar conclusions. Leather is, by far, Kering’s most damaging source of environmental impacts. Similarly to the Pulse report, synthetics are measured at about half of the impacts of leather. Their report, the Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L),also singled out cashmere as having the largest impact among their non-leather animal fibers (mohair, wool, cashmere, vicuna, etc).
“Across Kering we use ten times more wool than cashmere however more than 80% of our impacts from animal fibres are associated with the use of cashmere.” – KERING EP&L
The distinction between skins (leather) and hairs (“animal fiber”) is something to pay attention to, because often there is crossover. Sheep and goats, for example, are both sheared for their hair and eventually killed for leather. If combined, animal materials are the most detrimental category of textiles where the environment is concerned.
We source leather primarily from cattle, sheep and goats. For leather, 93% of the total impacts are driven by the land use and GHG emissions associated with farming the animals. Most of the remaining 7% is associated with energy use and water use by tanneries” – KERING EP&L
While Kering does attempt to address some issues with tanneries, the research indicates that even if the tanneries were removed from the equation, 93% of the impacts happen before the skins arrive at the tanneries. Therefore, we must be vigilant against greenwashing in the form of “vegetable-tanned” leather and “chrome-free” leather. Something like PU (polyurethane) leather outperforms animal skins environmentally by far, and this isn’t even considering the soon-to-be-made plant-based PUs.
Kering should be applauded for taking this step in self-analysis and self-criticism – certainly a risky thing to do. But they are also counting on reaping some of those huge financial benefits of implementing sustainable innovation, so it’s not all altruism. The authors of the Pulse report should also be lauded for creating invaluable resources and ongoing research with the goal of motivating and empowering the fashion industry.
ACCEPT THE DATA
Data is crucial for being taken seriously, and that can trickle up to create meaningful legislation and drive strategic growth and change from points of leverage. Basically, the takeaway is that anything requiring large amounts of land, especially cattle and even conventional cotton, are going to have significantly larger impacts on the environment than human-made materials.
If we’re going to address the very worst problems first, where companies should be focusing is replacing animal materials with superior human-made materials.
And that doesn’t mean just switching over to conventional rayon – it can mean investing in plant-based, biodegradable rayon. It can mean taking an active role in getting behind the companies that are currently making ground-breaking materials, similar to how Stella McCartney has recently partnered with Bolt Threads. Pushing back against the data to defend business-as-usual will soon not only be a bad PR move, it could be criminal if environmental legislation is introduced.
We need everyone from fashion students and scientists to designers and investors to aspire to create and use emerging materials from the fields of cellular agriculture (growing or brewing protein fibers like leather, silk and wool in the laboratory), recycled materials like Newlife and The New Denim Project, and hi-tech synthetics like bioplastics.
This is exactly what happened with VEGEA Wine Leather – a group of young Italians who figured out how to make leather from the leftovers of wine production; grape skins and pulp. They were awarded €300,000 this year to take their concept from prototype to production by winning the top prize from the Global Change Award.
Finally, one reason why many designers do not use the latest innovations isn’t because they don’t want to… they simply don’t know they exist or how to look for them. And when they find them, getting access to a few yards for sample-making is next-to impossible. Textile trade shows, suppliers, universities, fashion media and sourcing experts must do a better job of identifying, organizing and creating access to the best innovative materials. The Biofabricate conference does a great job of this, but in New York City there is still nowhere a designer to go to see and source the latest innovations in sustainable materials, from something a simple as recycled polyester, recycled cotton to Piñatex,Mycoworks andApple Leather.
If we want change to happen quickly, we’ve got to take fashion seriously, take the data seriously, and make it rewarding, fun and easy for designers to get their hands on the good stuff.
More pro-athletes are turning to a plant-based diet to get the most out of their workouts, training, and recoveries. But what might seem like a new trend in the NFL is nothing new to strength sports in general. Back in June 2017, for example, the totally vegan PlantBuilt team competed at the Naturally Fit Games in Austin, Texas in CrossFit, powerlifting, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, and kettlebell – taking home 32 medals. Teammate Sara Lee set an American and world record in kettlebell. Icelandic vegan powerlifter Hulda B. Waage set a record back squat in 2016, and America’s strongest weightlifter, Kendrick Farris “is 100% vegan”, according to both Men’s Fittness and his own testimony from a fun interview during the Rio Olympics where he said, “I’m not missing out on anything…I weigh over two hundred pounds.”
The rewards of a plant-based diet are also becoming popular among elite NFL athletes. Ravens wide receiver Griff Whalen, has followed a strictly vegan diet for almost four years.
When I tried a whole food vegan diet I felt a major impact in less than 2 weeks. That was enough motivation for me to stick with it. – Griff Whalen
Whalen even eschews leather for ethical reasons. He spoke exclusively with thediscerningbrute.com about why he thinks this trend is happening in his sport:
I think the league is so competitive that many of the guys are looking for any edge they can find, including nutrition. Better nutrition allows us to recover faster, train harder and longer, and ultimately become better athletes. There are many different opinions on the best dietary methods for athletes, and tons of false or partial truths out there, so it can be very difficult to wade through all that to find out what the real facts and research support… Today things are slowly changing with the resources we have online, and also in books and documentaries. I think the real evidence is starting to get some exposure and word is spreading.
Griff is not alone in his experience with the physical rewards of a vegan diet. The Detroit Lion’s running back, Theo Riddick, was interviewed in The Detroit News regarding his switch after suffering a wrist injury.
“I turned vegan over the summer. I’ve noticed a difference just with my energy level. I’m not a junk-food type of eater. I’m like a smoothie guy; I do a lot of fruit and throw my kale and all my protein in there and that’s how I get everything.” – The Detroit News
Two Washington Redskins players have also gone vegan; offensive tackle Trent Williams and guard Arie Kouandjio. In an interview with NFL.com Williams said:
“I just wanted to find ways to improve at healthy living, and hopefully it will help me with longevity in my career.” – NFL.com
Williams is encouraging others to try it, too, like New Orleans Saints running back, Adrian Peterson, with whom he co-owns O Athletic Gym in Houston. Peterson admitted to being tempted to make the switch himself. He was interviewed by NOLA.com as saying that his diet is about 85% plant-based now. Time will tell if he joins the ranks and gets from aspiring-vegan to 100%. He said:
“I’ve always been kind of leery about processed food, so I’ve always kind of (avoided) it. But once I watched the documentary [What The Health] after I heard about it from Trent, I watched it, and it just kind of puts it in your face. I was just like, it’s time to really kind of change some things up.” – NOLA.com
Filmmaker Santino Panico, whose forthcoming film “From The Ground Up” – which takes a in-depth look at vegetarian and vegan athletes across a spectrum of sports, has spent time with many of these elite athletes, and has gotten to know how they think. I asked Panico for his opinion on this, and he said a trend like this “several years ago would have seemed impossible”.
“Inflammation is an athlete’s worst enemy, especially if that athlete is an NFL player. So these players are seeing research showing that plant-based diets reduce inflammation while diets heavy in meat and animal products cause inflammation.”
Panico also explained that “the culture of the NFL tends to lean towards machismo and food is tied to that.”
“Players believe they need meat to be strong and masculine,” he said. “But now even that is being proven wrong”.
This all begs the question, if a plant-based diet is good enough for athletes in some of the most physically demanding sports, isn’t it sufficient for average people?