Massive Fashion Industry Studies Condemn Animal Materials

by Joshua Katcher

Huge stack of piled sheep and cow skins. Australia, 2017. Copyright Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.


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.

A massive study called Pulse of the Fashion Industry, which was published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, a respected global leader in business strategy advising since 1963 – was unleashed in May of 2017 to coincide with the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and delivered some serious wake-up-calls.

Overall apparel consumption will rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons in 2030—an equivalent of more than 500 billion T-shirts.

– Pulse of the Fashion Industry

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.

Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry


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.

Cow skins stacked and salted on wooden pallets. Australia, 2017. Copyright Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Materials like PU leather are found to have less than half of the environmental impacts as their animal-derived counterpart.

Sheep In A Sale Yard. Ballarat, Australia, 2013. Copyright Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals


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.”

Ecotextile News


Hundreds of stacked sheep skins. Australia, 2017. Copyright Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals


Animal agriculture has seen large-scale condemnation in multiple arenas over the last decade, like meat production being linked to climate change with a near consensus among global climate leaders such as the United Nations FAO. This information, coupled with growing ethical concerns for the billions of animals killed for their body parts every year and an increasing link between animal products and disease, has been a major driving force in the development of increasingly-funded and valuable solutions from clean meat to biosynthesized spider silk fibers, bio-based nylon, poly, and PU and lab-grown leather.

At Modern Meadow, a small piece of lab-grown leather. Source:


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.


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).

Source: KERING E P&L


“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.


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.

Textiles made from upcycled denim. Source: The New Denim Project


In order to do that, there has to be rewards. The recent Biodesign Challenge, the  CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, The Global Change Award, The Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, the Green Carpet Challenge, the Ecochic Design Awards, New Harvest, IndieBio and a handful of others are a great start. But there needs to be much more resources put into this effort, and guidelines must stay in pace with the latest data, placing emphasis on the biggest problems, like replacing animal materials.

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.

VEGEA leather made from grape marc. Image Source:



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 and Apple Leather.

Mycoworks mycellium-based (fungus) leather. Source:

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.

Berluti’s Dissonance is Fashion Carnism

Image: New York Times/ Chris Moore/Karl Prouse

The luxury fashion label, Berluti, made headlines with their over-the-top Fall 2013 presentation at Paris’ Museum of Natural History. People were awestruck by the collection being presented among a Noah’s Ark of taxidermy and dioramas of extinct and endangered species. Many of the human Mannequins wore animal heads in an aesthetic attempt to belong. Artists, fashion aficionados, and people in general have an overwhelming sense of awe when in the presence of animals, and Berluti certainly capitalized on the opportunity to associate their brand with this awe. When asked why, Berluti’s creative director Alessandro Sartori claimed, according to, it “got him thinking about the genealogy of his own profession: how tailoring had evolved, what was lost, what had survived.” Poetic? For sure. But it also showcases a disconcerting lack of responsibility as being more than just an analogy to evolutionary history. The designer, the attendees, and the public  were cheated out of a much more profound and important connection that could have been made; that Fashion does not evolve in a bubble removed from nature. And furthermore, the effects of both the physical production models and the semiotics of fashion symbols has profound, global impacts on animals, ecosystems and peoples.


The show featured a predictable mix of what has represented the ultimate in luxury for centuries: various animal skins, animal hairs, pelts and plumage. I wonder if anyone at Berluti or the Museum knew that only 100 years ago, many species of birds were driven to extinction or near extinction because of women’s hat trends? Or that the fur industry is responsible for trapping endangered and protected species like Canada Lynx and Bald Eagles on a regular basis? What about the fact that semi-aquatic animals like mink are kept caged for their entire lives, depriving them of everything they evolved to do? Of the fact that Nutria were introduced to the Gulf Coast by fur farmers and became an invasive species destroying the wetlands? And what about leather? How can this classic luxury symbol be responsible for the worst environmental and human rights issues?


How is it possible for something so counter-intuitive to the educational agenda of The Museum of Natural History be featured within its walls? The answer is pathetic; no one realizes and no one connects the dots. Wearing animals is seen as given, not as a choice or ideology with its own set of values. In this sense, it is fashion carnism. Why is it acceptable to wear “down-filled quilted leather” but not elephant leather? Are we not supposed to look at animals as being more than a stockpile of fashion accessories in-the-raw?
I’m not saying that Berluti is solely responsible for these atrocities, but it’s rare that an opportunity to connect these dots so obviously presents itself. Fashion carnism, like traditional carnism, is a dominant, violent ideology that, according to Dr. Melanie Joy ,”…need[s] to use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they’re doing.” In other words, so long as animals’ bodies are turned into mainstream symbols of luxury, removed entirely from the real-world impacts of the brutality of production, there will continue to be more endangered and extinct animals to add to the museum.

Report on Leather Released

I recently wrote about The End of Leather which could be replaced with superior, efficient hi-tech innovation in only five years. To add fuel to the fire, today’s Reuters revealed a shocking look inside the luxury leather industry’s severe lack of human-welfare and environmental oversight, as researched by a Human Rights Watch study:

A boy stands in front of the tannery wastes at Hazaribagh in Dhaka October 9, 2012. REUTERS-Andrew Biraj

A boy stands in front of the tannery wastes at Hazaribagh in Dhaka October 9, 2012.
REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

“Luxury leather goods sold across the world are produced in a slum area of Bangladesh’s capital where workers, including children, are exposed to hazardous chemicals and often injured in horrific accidents, according to a study released on Tuesday.” – Reuters

Companies like Puma, who have committed to evolving beyond leather are starting to realize the incredible toll leather takes on people, animals and ecosystems. According to Puma Chairman, Jochen Zeitz, “ think eventually we’ll have to look at alternative materials, there’s no question about itWe should eat less meat, all of us, and we should use less leather, I mean that’s reality.”

Bangladesh is not alone in the crises caused by the leather industry. Another recent report from Greenpeace on the destruction of rainforests and indigenous land in South America caused some waves, but the fashion industry, often depicted as rapidly capricious, turns out to be much more sloth-like when it comes to anything but the color of a shirt or hemline of a dress. Similar reports from indea document young children in liming baths with no protective equipment From the perspective of fashion semiotics (what leather represents symbolically), as transparency of the production process increases, the meaning of leather garments as fashion objects must change according to what we now know about it. It becomes increasingly difficult for leather to be seen as the paragon of quality, as the major fashion brands and the leather industry would like to maintain, when the entire production process is the furthest thing from quality.

According to the study conducted by Human Rights Watch:

This report documents an occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery. Residents of Hazaribagh slums complain of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil. The government has not protected the right to health of the workers and residents, has consistently failed to enforce labor or environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and has ignored High Court orders to clean up these tanneries. –

Ultrasuede made from recycled PET, PU microfibers made in Italy,  bioprinted in-vitro leather, bacterial-culture grown cellulose leather, textile coatings, cork, bark and other technologies are emerging that are less toxic, more efficient, more customizable controllable and perform better than animal-based leathers.

Ditta Tassel Platform Bootie - Purple Snake

McQueen’s Murdered Tiger, Knowledgeable Cotton, Foie Gras Rebel Rousing & More Man Bags

• Knowledge Apparel in Denmark has some shirts and shorts that I love, all in 100% organic cotton. I recently contacted them to see if the small leather tags on some of their other organic apparel is real or not. I will let you know what they (and I, in response) say ! In the meantime, these are cruelty-free and great for spring and summer:

SHOWstudio's stuffed tiger• A stuffed tiger on display in a London art gallery was once used alive by Alexander McQueen in a Puma ad last year. The stuffed tiger has been seized by Scotland Yard’s Wildlife Crime Unit under allegations that it was murdered for profit.Hint Magazine has the full article involving arrests, endangered species, and  a crackdown on the illegal animal trade bizarrely code-named Operation Charm.

Met officers confiscate a stuffed tiger from SHOWstudio in London

Starving Calves tied to a tractor and left to die were rescued by Farm Sanctuary two nights ago. Due to their dire condition, the calves were administered emergency electrolytes while in transit to Cornell University Animal Hospital, where they received urgent medical attention. If you would like to help supply urgent funds to help them, click here.

Emergency Rescue!

Matt & Natt has some more new vegan accessories for men featuring recycled-soda-bottle faux-suede lining.

Tropez - Canvas Handbag BlackAphex - Canvas Backpack BlackFaithless - Pebble Handbag BlackHercules - Canvas handbag BlackBraun - Canvas Handbag BlackBauhaus - Pebble Overnight Handbag Black

• Activists from the Animal Protection & Rescue League will descend upon Telepan, a restaurant that claims to care about animals, on March 27 from 7 p.m. till 9 p.m to protest the restaurant’s selling of Foie Gras, a cruel product made by of force-feeding geese through a pipe until their livers become diseased and grow to 12-times their normal size. New York Magazine’s Grub-Street cover’s the story in their typically snarky way. Please go and leave comments in response to things in the comment section like “I’ve seen geese “force-fed” several times, and they loved every minute of it...I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier geese” or “The Center for Constitutional Rights said….” or  “They should try some foie gras, maybe they wouldn’t be as cranky…” or “I suppose we could respect each other’s decisions.” Hasn’t some genius invented a soundboard to respond to the same stupid things over and over? I feel like a broken record half the time.

Ducking Controversy: Telepan Readies for Visit From Pâté Police

Youthful Abandon from Paris

Rock-star photographer Aliya Naumoff shot these awesome photos for the Spring/Summer 2010 collection from April77.

The brains behind the line, Parisian-Vegan, Brice Partouce, was inspired by the late-80s/early-90s music scenes of noise, hardcore, grunge and shoegazing.

Featuring coarse, open-end denim, and an unkempt, vintage, preppy appeal, oiled cotton jacket, flanel shirts and chino pants.

This is the last season April 77 will use any wool (they are already fur, leather, and feather-free) and by Autumn Winter 2010, the line will be completely vegan.