Human civilization has worn animal fibers since prehistoric times. We’ve all seen the cave paintings where our ancestors would don themselves with the skins and furs of their kills to keep themselves warm and covered. However, as our species grew and dominated the planet, our prehistoric habits proved to be destructive to ecosystems and we had to find better fabrics to cover ourselves with.
Plant and synthetic fibers dominate the fashion market, but there is still great demand for animal fibers. Most animal-derived fabrics are sourced cruelly and without care for the animals, raising great ethical as well as conservational concerns, and therefore, we suggest avoiding animal fibers entirely––especially if you follow a vegan lifestyle.
Here’s a list of the common animal-derived fibers and their environmental impact:
Wool is one of the most loved animal fabrics because it is easy to care for, can last for a long time, and is more sustainable than other animal fabrics, depending on how it is sourced. There are many kinds and qualities of wool such as Merino, Rambouillet, and Corriedale. A single sheep can produce around 4.5 kilograms of wool each year, which creates around ten meters of wool fabric.
Most wool production is unethical and unsustainable; however, the Responsible Wool Standard sets guidelines that make it as eco-friendly as possible. Pesticides and fertilizers should not be used on sheep pastures, and sheep should be treated with the utmost care, and shouldn’t be left in freezing conditions once the wool is shaved. Wool is also renewable, completely biodegradable, and uses a lot less energy and water to produce than cotton or polyester. While we don’t recommend buying wool clothes, make the choice to purchase certified sustainable wool if you must!
As we all know, leather is made of skin from dead animals. Leather, although not in the way we know it today, is one of the oldest fabrics we have used. Animal hides are first cleaned of hair, then tanned in order to preserve them, and then dyed and embossed in order to create the final leather product. Most of leather comes from animals that are raised for meat and dairy products, mostly bovine cows, sheep and goats. Approximately 3.8 billion bovine animals are used for their leather products every year around the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Although most leather is a by-product of the meat industry, it does not come without its own environmental concerns. Processing leather can be very toxic, and many of the chemicals used to tan leather are major water contaminants. Most tanneries do not treat their wastewater, and in third world countries, employing minors who experience severe chronic illnesses because of the toxic chemicals.
While The Leather Working Group is attempting to make leather more sustainable and ethical, most tanneries still use unethical practices. There is a reduction in demand for leather, while more people are consuming meat every year. This has led to a lot of animal hides getting thrown away, and finished leather products are becoming cheaper. This is reducing sustainability and ethics in the leather industry. European guidelines, however, have made leather production more eco-friendly, so that could be a sustainable option!
We recommend learning about where the leather comes from, and buy sustainably!
Silk is a biodegradable and renewable animal fiber that is made from natural proteins. It is produced by the larvae of the silkworm when it cocoons during its chrysalis stage in order to turn into a moth. Silk is a natural filament fiber, and the only one! Filament fibers are those that when unraveled, are extremely long and can run for miles and kilometers. One filament fiber from a cocoon can measure around 1000 yards, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
While silk has a lot of benefits over other animal fibers, it is unfortunately produced by boiling the silk cocoons in order to kill the silkworm inside before the larvae eats through the cocoon. Many silk farmers also inject the worms with hormones to speed up growth and increase the quantity of silk, and other toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are also used in silk farms.
Silk is a zero-waste fabric and doesn’t use pesticides but can have a huge environmental impact, bigger than polyester, rayon, and even cotton, because of the energy used in creating it. However, if you think you can take good care of your silk fabric and use it for years to come, it is definitely a more sustainable option down the road!
And now we finally get to talk about alpaca yarn, commonly touted as one of the greenest fibers on the planet. Alpacas are a member of the South American camelids, which include llamas and guanacos, and are cousins to the camels. Their fleece is more sustainable than goat and sheep fleece because they are mostly reared at their native habitat, in the Andes, and thus do not degrade the environment or cause desertification like cashmere goats who can be overbearing on grasslands.
Unlike goats and sheep, alpacas are not harmed or killed for their fleece and the shearing process is painless and gentle. Alpaca fibers are also stain resistant, odor resistant, and very strong which means they don’t need to be washed very often and don’t damage or pill easily. The fibers are also warm, soft, and light, which makes them comfortable to wear and layer in the colder weather. Alpaca fiber is biodegradable but can last for decades if kept in good conditions––and away from moths and other insects!
If you are determined to wear wool, buy alpaca!
Down is a material made out of the softer feathers of birds like geese, swans and ducks. It is typically found under the tougher feathers of these birds. Most of the feathers come from waste left behind by birds, from ducks raised for their meat, and birds that are bred for their feathers in captivity. Down retains a lot of heat for a fabric so light and hence is used in jackets, duvets and comforters, gloves, mittens and other outerwear.
Down is more sustainable and has a lower carbon footprint than its synthetic counterparts; however, the production of down is very unethical. Many farmers choose to live-pluck their ducks and geese without anesthetics and can leave them bleeding. Very few down products are actually ethically produced, so make sure you check the source of the down product you buy or choose a down alternative!
When we hear cashmere, we think of luxury wool that is soft and warm. Cashmere comes from goats and is three times warmer than sheep wool. Most goats provide good fleece, however, the pashmina cashmere goats, which are a nomadic species, produce the finest wool out of all goats. Goats naturally shed their hair as temperatures rise, so farmers can extract the fleece just by combing through the hair.
The word ‘cashmere’ comes from Kashmir, the region where this fabric was first produced in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century that cashmere became popular among European buyers, which led to the heavy production of cashmere since then. Cashmere is expensive because of how rare the material is, but cheaper versions of cashmere have started to appear in the market as the supply of goats has increased considerably.
Though cashmere can be ethically produced, if the goats are sheared too early, they can freeze to death, so care has to be taken to shear the goats when it is warmer. Overbreeding of goats is also increasing the desertification of grasslands, which has a huge environmental impact.
We recommend buying recycled cashmere or buying cashmere that is sustainably produced without hurting any goats. Make sure to keep it safe and use it for a long time!