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Animal rights, animal welfare and clothing

Not only does the fashion industry have serious animal rights issues attached, it is also associated with a plethora of animal welfare abuses. 

In this article, we discuss the problems with using animal-derived materials in clothing, outline the animal welfare issues with leather, down and other materials, and highlight the animal-friendly alternatives and where you can find them.

What are the problems with using animal-derived materials in clothing?

For many, the use of animals’ bodies for human clothing is inherently unethical. Their skins, furs and feathers are exploited for our gain – denying their bodily autonomy. Farmed animals are usually killed once they stop becoming economical e.g. producing milk fast enough, cutting their lifespan to a fraction of what it could be in the wild or at a sanctuary.

For other people, the key concern may be whether certain welfare conditions are met. Unfortunately, animal-derived materials are associated with some very low standards of animal welfare. Foxes and rabbits are often kept in cages for their entire lives, for the use of fur. Many merino wool lambs are subjected to painful mutilations.

While humans have used animal materials since the prehistoric period, the rise of industrial farming has rapidly transformed our relationship to other animals and the materials we take from them.

Many species are farmed in enormous numbers. They can live in confined or otherwise uncomfortable conditions and be forced through cycles of production designed to make their bodies produce more and produce faster up until the day of slaughter.

In the UK it is estimated that over 70% of farmed animals live on factory farms. Amongst these, there are over 1000 mega farms. And between 2011-2017, there was a 26% rise in this kind of intensive factory farming. These are farms that have more than 125,000 birds reared for meat, or 82,000 egg-laying hens, or 2,500 pigs, or 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef cattle.

Leather is usually bought as a ‘by-product’ (see below why some people prefer the term ‘co-product’) of the meat industry. Although considered a ‘waste product’, it can channel money back into factory farming. Other animal products like fur are specifically farmed – meaning that fashion creates an exploitative industry all of its own.

Leather and animal welfare

Photo of cattle in pens in factory farming

Animals' skins provide them with amazing resilience against the elements.

Recognising this, humans have long killed animals for their hides and leather. Leather is waterproof and extremely durable, and has therefore been used for shoes and clothing. Nowadays leather has become a staple of the fashion industry: it is estimated that half a billion dead animals are used by the leather industry each year, and 84% of brands source leather in their supply chains.

Leather is associated with a multitude of animal welfare issues. Most leather in the UK comes from cows. Some factory farmed cattle will spend a large part of their lives tethering in dark, overcrowded barns. Most cows raised for meat will be killed at 1-2 years of age.

Companies in the UK also often import finished leather products from countries elsewhere, which may have a lower standard for animal and environmental rights. For example, the UK is the third biggest importer of leather and leather products from India.

In India, it is illegal to slaughter cows in many states, meaning they are often transported huge distances – either walked for miles in high temperatures, or over-crowded into vans where they can injure one another. There are reports that animals have been skinned while still alive. Workers making leather products in India for European brands have also reported serious abuses such as unprotected use of toxic chemicals, accidents from machinery and poverty wages.

Leather is also associated with multiple environmental issues. Cattle farming has a high climate impact, with the beef industry (from which most leather comes) responsible for a quarter of all emissions from our food every year. To stop leather from decomposing, a toxic mix of chemicals is also used including infamous poisons such as cyanide and arsenic. Effluent from tanneries also pollutes surrounding land, water and air.

Is leather a by-product or co-product?

Leather is often considered a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry: it comes from animals that were killed for meat, and therefore otherwise may have been discarded. Fashion companies sometimes market products based on this point, suggesting that by buying a leather product you’re cutting down on waste.

But farmers are paid for leather (although a small amount), meaning that it can help to sustain animal farming for slaughter and is likely factored into their predicted income. It’s therefore difficult to know where the line between ‘by-product’ and ‘co-product’ lies.  

Animal leather vs synthetic leather

The clothing industry has developed a growing number of alternatives to animal leather. But is vegan leather an ethical product?

Vegan leather is generally made from plastic, and, like animal leather, has historically been associated with some very toxic chemicals. In our 2020 shopping guide to shoes, we reported that “the environmental impact of vegan leathers has been improving enormously.” Synthetic leather materials have, on average, less than half the greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact than real leather per kg.

However, there’s a big catch: vegan leather is much less durable than animal leather. It’s expected to last 2-5 years, compared to animal leather products which can last several decades. This means that in practice, the environmental benefits of switching to vegan leather may not be so great.

Should I buy second-hand leather?

Second-hand leather is a divisive topic for many consumers concerned about animal rights and welfare.

For some, it's a solution to the animal welfare vs durability trade off when it comes to buying leather or faux leather clothing. Proponents of second-hand leather argue that it does not fund the industry, and therefore is not fuelling the animal welfare issues involved. Many also point out that it keeps products in use, significantly cutting their environmental footprint. It can also be a way to avoid buying new plastic alternatives.

For others, second-hand leather normalises wearing an animal’s body for our own benefit. Some argue that we don’t ever have the right to wear another animal’s body regardless of how it’s purchased.

Wool and animal welfare

Lambs and sheep

Like leather, wool is an incredible adaptation that allows animals to survive in many conditions. It is warm and water resistant, helping a shivering sheep on a UK hillside in November. Humans and companies have recognised the powerful qualities of wool and as such it has become a staple in the clothing industry.

Yet, its use raises serious concerns for those worried about animal welfare and animal rights.

Most wool in the UK comes from sheep. Around one third is taken from lambs after they have been slaughtered for meat. The rest comes from ewes, who are bred for birthing.

The industry is associated with multiple animal welfare issues. Lambs are often subject to ‘tail docking’ – cutting their tails short to prevent infection. Ewes are inseminated artificially and encouraged to mate on repeat and can have serious problems giving birth, due to the way sheep have been bred to suit industry demands. Sheep are rarely allowed to live their full lifespan, and are killed when their bodies slow down and are unable to produce at the same rates as a younger animal.

Shearing itself also has welfare issues attached. According to Viva!, “Sheep are easily frightened and don’t like being handled but shearers forcibly restrain them to remove their wool. [...] To prevent sheep from vomiting due to stress, food and water are often withheld for eight hours beforehand.” Shearers are generally paid by the number of sheep sheared, rather than an hourly wage – at £2 per sheep in the UK. This may force them to rush through the process, making injuries to the sheep more likely. There is no legal requirement for shearers to be trained.

Research by Ethical Consumer also found that wool is the worst fabric when it comes to carbon footprint. It had the highest carbon emission per kilo of any fabric looked at – producing three times the emissions of flax linen, the best fabric when it comes to the carbon footprint.

Merino wool and animal welfare

Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of merino wool, responsible for about a quarter of all global production. Due to the prevalence of something called ‘fly-strike’ in the country, sheep farmers often perform 'mulesing' which involves carving strips of skin and flesh off the backs of unanaesthetised lambs’ legs and around their tails. This is done to cause smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbour fly eggs. Around 20 million merino lambs are subjected to mulesing every year.

More and more companies are committing to only source from suppliers who will not use mulesing. Ethical Consumer marks companies down under the Animal Rights category if they haven’t made this commitment, so check our guides to clothing to avoid this practice.

Animal rights group Four Paws hoped that there might be an end to the cruel practice of mulesing for the wool industry. Four Paws have collated a list of 350 fashion brands that
have a clear policy against mulesing. It also reports that many brands have made commitments to only sourcing wool that is certified mulesing free. 

Angora wool and animal welfare

Angora wool comes from rabbits. The majority of angora rabbits are bred and kept in China, where they are housed in small, dirty, bare cages and live plucked four times a year. Reports have found that rabbits can be restrained and live plucked even in ‘humane’ farms.

For this reason, more than 425 brands have banned angora.

Is wool ethical?

For many vegans, wool will be a no go, because sheep can’t consent to us using it. For others, it may depend on how the sheep have been reared and kept (and may be appealing in an age of plastic because it is biodegradable or non-synthetic).

Some brands are trying to support better wool farming practices. For example, outdoor brands like Patagonia use the Responsible Wool Standard. The standard was developed by the Textile Exchange, working with experts from Four Paws, Humane Society and Wildlife Friendly. PETA has, however, previously accused it of greenwash, saying that inspections were ineffective and not performed often enough.

Second-hand wool might be an option, to avoid directly funding the industry. But for others this doesn’t really address the problem of sporting an animal product.

Down and animal welfare

male eider duck on water
Male eider duck - where we get the bedding related word 'eiderdown' from

The feathers from millions of geese and ducks, mainly bred in China, are used for the production of down.

The vast majority of down is taken when the animals are killed for meat. However, some will have their feathers plucked while alive, and this can happen on repeat for years. Down from birds that have been live plucked many times is very high value, because this gives it more ‘fill-power’ (warmth per volume). Some birds may also have been force-fed for foie gras.

Lots of companies now claim that they will only use feathers that were plucked from birds after they were slaughtered for meat. However, few companies properly trace where feathers used actually come from, making it hard to guarantee.

In the last decade, animal welfare charity Four Paws has worked with outdoor brands to improve the situation. A growing number of companies are now ensuring that their down is both transparent and traceable.

Our article on down looks at the issue in more detail and highlights companies with better down practices.

If you want to know how high-street brands are performing, check out our shopping guide to high street clothes shops. We found some pretty poor practices. For example, Shein was found to sell down products despite claiming to have “a strict no animal policy”.

Fur and animal welfare

White rabbit in cage

Over half a billion animals are raised and killed each year for their fur. Around 85% of the skins used by the fur industry come from fur farms, where animals such as mink, foxes, rabbits and chinchillas are specially raised and kept for the purpose.

PETA says that fur farms are “dismal, often filthy places where thousands of animals are usually kept in wire cages for their entire lives.”

“To cut costs, fur farmers pack animals into unbearably small cages, preventing them from taking more than a few steps in any direction or doing anything that is natural and important to them, such as running, swimming, making nests, and finding mates. Many animals go insane under these conditions. The anguish and frustration of life in a cage leads many animals to self-mutilate, biting at their skin, tail, and feet; frantically pace and circle endlessly; and even cannibalise their cage mates.”

Animal fur vs synthetic fur

With the move away from animal fur, some companies have started using synthetic fur for shoes, coats and trims.

Faux fur is usually made from synthetic fibres like acrylic and polyester. These are plastic based, meaning that they’re made from fossil fuel feedstock and contribute to plastic pollution.

Given that both animal and synthetic fur come with issues attached, you might decide to steer clear of fur altogether.

Which companies use fur?

Over recent years a growing number of companies have banned the use of fur in their products, including H&M, Topshop and Zara. PETA keeps a full list of fur-free companies.

In all our guides, we mark companies down under Animal Rights if we find them selling fur. Check our various clothing guides to see how your favourite brands score.

Silk and animal rights

Larvae of Bombyx mori silk worm moths in farmed cage
Larvae of Bombyx mori silk worm moths in farmed cage (Image from Pexels)

Silkworms produce silk to weave into their protective cocoons.

On silk farms, these insects are boiled or gassed inside their cocoons, because it makes the silk begin to unravel so it can be harvested. The insects that are allowed to grow into moths can be killed once they have mated and laid eggs, the female moths crushed to check for diseases.

There are also human rights issues in the silk industry. In 2021, CNN reported that workers in the Indian silk industry were being paid just $3 an hour. Some were working in bonded labour conditions – forced to work in return for debts owed to employers.

What is peace silk?

‘Ahimsa’ or ‘peace silk’ is produced without killing the insects during harvesting. The moths are allowed to hatch out of their cocoons, before they are harvested.

Much peace silk is still from silk farming, although some, known as ‘tussar silk’ , comes from wild moths whose cocoons are collected.

However, peace silk still has its ethical issues attached. PETA says, “no certification authorities exist to guarantee that these standards are upheld, and there have been reports of conventional silk being sold as ‘peace silk’.” While the moths are not killed for harvesting to take place, they may be slaughtered after they can no longer reproduce.

Animals silk vs artificial silk

Artificial silk is generally made from bamboo fibres, to produce a fabric called rayon. While this might sound sustainable, the process can involve the use of very toxic chemicals, which can be leaked into the environment.

If you really do want a silk equivalent, you may want to look for organic bamboo or bamboo linen, where the fibres will have been mechanically rather than chemically extracted. The next best option is ‘lyocell’ bamboo, which minimises chemical use. This may be labelled as Monocel®.

We have an article which discusses fabrics in more detail.

Vegan clothing companies

In all our guides we mark companies down for use of animal-derived materials and highlight vegan alternatives. Our guide to ethical clothing lists a range of vegan clothing companies.

Brands like Rapanui and THTC appear to steer clear of animal products, while Monkee Genes and MUD Clothing offer some vegan ranges.

Using our guides to avoid companies with poor animal rights ratings

In our ethical rating and ranking, we mark companies down for using animal-derived materials or ingredients and for lacking adequate welfare policies. We also mark them down if they don’t have clear animal testing policies and operate sectors in relevant sectors such as clothing, food or cosmetics. You can check how a company scores by clicking on the ‘Animals’ section on our table.

We also highlight companies doing something different. You can spot totally vegan companies on our table by looking for [Vg] next to their name in the score tables in the shopping guides.