‘Animal-friendly’ fashion alternatives could do more harm to the environment than fur and leather-based clothing, experts say.
Many vegan-friendly fashion products produce thousands of synthetic fibres that harm ocean creatures, but this is often overlooked by consumers.
Synthetic garments also come from petroleum, do not biodegrade and often don’t last as long as their leather counterparts, environmental researchers say.
Ethical shoppers are increasingly looking to buy polyester and acrylic imitations of leather products, but this could be harming the environment more than people think.
‘Animal-friendly’ fashion alternatives could do more harm to the environment than fur and leather-based clothing, scientists say (stock image)
‘We’ve got these two uber issues – animal welfare and overconsumption of plastic – that are coming up against each other,’ Sydney-based sustainable fashion consultant Clara Vuletich told New Scientist as part of an in-depth feature.
Some argue that using animals for their skin is cruel while others say the longevity of animal-based textiles makes them environmentally friendly.
‘Maybe you could go for a thick, quilted cotton jacket, but even then, cotton farming typically uses a lot of water and pesticides,’ she said.
Increasingly high street retailers are promoting vegan clothing.
Mango has a Mango Committed range range made entirely from environmentally friendly, organic, recycled cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel (a wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests).
Zara’s Join Life collection has garments made from recycled wool, Tencel and organic cotton, which uses 90 per cent less water to produce than conventional cotton.
Even Primark has got sustainable cotton products with a pyjama range using cotton direct from female farmers participating in its sustainable cotton programme.
The Higg Materials Sustainability Index is often used to work out the environmental impact of specific textiles.
According to the index, which looks at how much energy, water and chemicals go into making them and the pollution that is produced as a result, alpaca wool and cow leather are worst for the environment.
Cow farming is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emission and toxic chemicals go into leather tanning.
The results found that Kangaroo leather was the most sustainable material followed by four synthetic vegan materials – polyester, acrylic, nylon and polyurethane leather.
However, according to Lisa Heinze, who is doing a PhD on sustainable fashion at the University of Sydney, the index has a major limitation in that it doesn’t consider how consumers use clothes or what happens to them when they’re discarded.
Only looking at the environmental costs or production without taking into account the impacts of how people use them means it’s inherently limited, she believes.
The Higg Materials Sustainability Index is often used to work out the environmental impact of specific textiles. However, only looking at the environmental costs or production without taking into account the impacts of how people use them means it’s inherently limited
A woollen coat is likely to last longer than a synthetic one and doesn’t leach plastic microfibres that cause havoc in the ocean.
‘Once a synthetic jacket ends up in landfill, it’s never going to break down,’ Ms Heinze told New Scientist.
Only now are scientists understanding the effects of these tiny fibres.
A shocking study from 2016 revealed that polyester fleece jackets release up to two grams of microfibres per wash which cause damage to marine life.
The tiny plastic fibres – thinner than a human hair – are eaten by plankton and shellfish when they reach the ocean and can ultimately be consumed by humans.
Plastic fibres from household laundry have been found in our food, from blue mussels to table salt and honey.
Experts from the Italian National Research Council say up to 300 fibres per litre escape in the waste water from family washing machines and that synthetic clothing is 16 times more damaging for the environment than microbeads.
‘It’s a completely messy issue’, said Ms Heinze.
WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS AND HOW DO THEY GET INTO OUR WATERWAYS?
Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than five millimetres (0.2 inches).
They have hit the headlines over recent years, as improper disposal has resulted in tonnes of waste making its way into the ocean.
Each year, tonnes of plastic waste fails to get recycled and dealt with correctly, which can mean they end up in marine ecosystems.
Although it’s unclear exactly how they end up in the water, microplastics may enter through simple everyday wear and tear of clothing and carpets.
Tumble dryers may also be a source, particularly if they have a vent to the open air.
Plastics don’t break down for thousands of years and it is estimated that there are already millions of items of plastic waste in the oceans. This number is expected to rise.
Studies have also revealed 700,000 plastic fibres could be released into the atmosphere with every washing machine cycle.
Current water systems are unable to effectively filter out all microplastic contamination, due to the varying size of particles.
The amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans will outweigh fish by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to further recycle, a report released in 2016 revealed.
More than 80 per cent of the world’s tap water is contaminated with plastic, research published in September 2017 revealed.
The US has the highest contamination rate at 93 per cent, followed by Lebanon and India, experts from the University of Minnesota found.
France, Germany and the UK have the lowest levels, however, they still come in at 72 per cent.
Overall, 83 per cent of water samples from dozens of nations around the world contain microplastics.
Scientists warn microplastics are so small they could penetrate organs.
Bottled water may not be a safer alternative, as scientists have found contaminated samples.
Creatures of all shapes and sizes have been found to have consumed the plastics, whether directly or indirectly.
Previous research has also revealed microplastics absorb toxic chemicals, which are then released in the gut of animals.