Going vegan in vogue: The rise of vegan fashion

This is another transcript of a fabulous podcast episode by David Pannell at Vegan Business Tribe. Photos, links, and bold have been added by me. Enjoy!

OK, today we’re going to cover something a little different because I want to focus in on a specific vegan sector. Now, I know this might put some people off because if your business is not part of this sector, then you might think it’s not going to be of interest to you. But looking at how any sector is changing because of veganism is really relevant, no matter what business you are in. Learning how customer demand is changing is really important because it gives you a better understanding of the vegan marketplace as a whole. And we are trying to make you not just amazing business people, but also experts on vegan consumers. And the sector I want to look at today is what impact ‘vegan’ is having on the fashion sector.

Now, we’ve got a number of Vegan Business Tribe members in the fashion and accessories scene, and I think it’s fair that we just give a shout-out to a couple—especially Vinita in Hong Kong from GnL or Genuinely Not Leather who is doing some amazing work with sustainable handbags made from teak leaves and other vegan alternatives to leather. We’ve also got Kishan from EthicaLiving, Meeta from Story 81 and Sam Barker from Clever Cotton who is Vegan Business Tribe’s master vegan-knitter and is just about to open her new shop in Blyth, just up the coast from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK.

And it’s how and why the vegan fashion market has been growing over the last few years that I really want to talk about in today’s session. Because I get a lot of people asking which sectors I think, beyond just food, are going to be the next big thing in vegan. And I often talk about how the vegan pet food market is about to explode, and vegan child and baby—but one of the markets I don’t talk about enough is fashion and accessories because it is a HUGE, established sector when vegan options are really starting to gain traction.

So how big are we talking about? Well, the Vegan Women’s Fashion Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by product, distribution channel, region and segment forecasts 2020 to 2027 (you see, I read these kinds of reports and tell you what’s in them so you don’t have to) but this report by Grand View Research valued the size of the global vegan fashion market at nearly 337 billion US dollars. By 2027, they are estimating that will have increased to 1095 billion dollars. That’s more than tripling in less than 6 years. Looking closer at their breakdown of figures, the vegan footwear segment is currently leading the market and accounted for over 40% of the sales in vegan fashion. Then looking at where in the world is currently buying vegan fashion, North America dominated the market for vegan women’s fashion, accounting for nearly 35% of the global sales in 2019 which isn’t surprising with just the vast amount of vegan consumers we can see in North America, especially in the US—but demand in Europe is expected to grow at the fastest, with the UK and Germany showing huge growth for vegan fashion and accessories.

But, we’re seeing a lot of growth in other countries that we wouldn’t normally associate with a vegan lifestyle. A recent survey by the Material Innovation Initiative showed that 90% of urban Chinese shoppers prefer animal-free leather. It’s interesting that in the survey, the Initiative used the term ‘next-gen leather’ which encompassed both plant and synthetic leathers, but the number one reason these Chinese consumers said they preferred next-gen leather was quality. Seventy-two percent gave this as their main reason, while 63% also stated it was because of animal welfare. ‘Personal expression’ and ‘cost’ were also leading factors driving this consumer shift—but many of the shoppers also believed that next-gen leather was ‘more fashionable’.

This is really important. China is a huge market in the fashion sector, in fact it’s one of the industry’s biggest revenue generators—sales in China make up 44% of the world’s fashion market. So you can understand why so many companies are taking note of this shift away from animal products by the country’s shoppers and why this is going to be potentially a huge new marketplace for companies making vegan fashion and accessories.

But it also gives companies a challenge. Because many fashion companies, especially established non-vegan brands, don’t fully understand what does and doesn’t make a product vegan. Leather is the obvious one to spot: if a product is made from the skin of a dead animal then it’s obviously not vegan or cruelty-free. But there are LOTS of ways that animal-derived products and components can still make their way into the items we wear. Even if you choose non-animal leather, the process that some products goes through, especially if it’s synthetic, can still include animal derivatives in its manufacturing process. Sometimes synthetic leather can actually be coated with a finishing spray containing ground-up animal leather to give it a more ‘authentic’ look—I know, it’s bonkers, you buy synthetic leather and they spray it with…leather!

Many adhesives and glues include collagen. Fabric dyes and finishes can be made from crushed insects and even cuttlefish. Printing ink can contain gelatine from animal hooves or shellac from the lac beetle. Even zips and fasteners can be coated with anti-corrosives that contain lubricants made from animal fats. Animal products are genuinely gruesome but they find their way into everything, simply because they are cheap. They are seen as a waste product from the meat and dairy industries—when you are killing such a huge number of animals you will find any way you can to get rid of the bits that are leftover that people won’t eat: their skin, their feet, their bones…I don’t think we need to go on, do we?

This is why we have seen a number of high-street fashion retailers looking into third-party certification to ensure and prove to consumers that their products are actually vegan. In 2019, New Look in the UK became the first high street retailer to register with The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark—usually a scheme associated with food products. In fact, New Look registered over 430 of their garments and accessories. In 2020, Gola registered their new vegan trainers with the trademark, followed by Superdry and supermarket giant Asda announcing that all their ladies bags are now registered with The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark. Just looking through the Vegan Society’s directory today, they currently have about four and a half thousand products registered in the fashion category—which is, and this number is mind-boggling, almost double the number they had at the start of the year.

Photo: shoplincoln.co.uk

And there are a number of reasons behind this growth in vegan fashion. First, consumers are realising that animal agriculture is one of the major contributors to climate change. Research shows that leather produced from a cow’s skin is nearly three times as harmful to the environment as vegan leather. Wool production, and the process it goes through, is twice as harmful to the environment as polyester. And if you do ever get the opportunity to talk to our member Sam from Clever Cotton, she will also tell you how cotton is an even better material than polyester.

But the second reason why vegan fashion is growing so quickly is because of the ethical awakening many consumers are going through right now. People have traditionally protested against companies selling clothes made from fur, but wouldn’t think twice about buying a pair of leather boots. But leather is just fur without the hair. Leather is the biggest killer of animals in the fashion industry, claiming over 1 billion lives each year, and although it’s been illegal to farm fur in the UK since 2020, there are no equivalent laws anywhere on the horizon to ban farming leather. Probably because, as I said before, the skin of cows is seen as a waste product and much of it comes from the meat industry. An example of speciesism at its finest.

And people, or rather consumers, are waking up to this realisation. That’s why we’re now seeing some amazing innovations in material sciences. We’ve got wool made from organic cotton, silk from bamboo and even leather made from cactus. Cactus leather doesn’t require large-scale water irrigation, is organic and produces a luxurious and long-lasting material. You can also buy plant-leather made from apples, corn and even pineapples, which isn’t just ethical—going back to the China study: it’s just downright cool—who wouldn’t want a bag made from pineapple leather? And it’s this consumer demand for something new that is another big driver behind the rise of vegan fashion.

Vegan footwear is one of the products leading the sector. The number of shoes available that are described as ‘vegan’ has increased by 36% in the UK and 27% in the US just this last year and many shoe retailers and brands have brought out vegan versions including Gucci, Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Dr. Martens and Kurt Geiger to name but a few. And this is a real tangible change. If you’re a long-term vegan, you will know the struggle of trying to get hold of a good pair of vegan shoes. You either had the choice of some cheap ‘pleather’ shoes as we used to call it, made from plastic leather that scuffed as soon as you put them on—or you could buy canvas shoes that gave you wet feet the first time you stepped in a puddle. Now you can buy the styles you want from the designers and brands you want and know you’re going to get a really good quality pair of vegan shoes.

And it’s worth looking a little further into the public’s understanding of these new materials and their relationship with animal-based products in fashion. Recently, The Vegan Society published a really good report called The Rise In Vegan Fashion, in which they surveyed 1,000 people in the UK who said they regularly purchased new clothing and accessories. The gender and age sample of the people they surveyed was fairly balanced, and one of the first questions they asked was about people’s understanding of how leather, specifically, was sourced. Around 20% of the people who responded said they had never thought about where leather actually comes from, which shows we’re facing the same problem we find in the dairy industry; leather is ubiquitous. We’ve grown up with it, just like we have cow’s milk and cheese. And it’s interesting that some fashion companies even have animal welfare statements saying no animals are harmed during the manufacture of their products, even though they are made from leather. Now, I assure you that no animal survives the leather-making process, but they make this statement because they source their leather as a bi-product of the meat industry. They are trying to make their consumers, and probably themselves, feel more comfortable by saying that purchasing their leather products is fine because the cow it was taken from was already dead.

 

And again, we come to this idea of speciesism, that killing some animals is fine for fashion whereas killing others is not just the same as we find with animals killed for food. In the same Vegan Society survey, 54% thought leather from calves was cruel, 61% said fur was cruel, and 57% said leather made from exotic animals like snakes or crocodiles was cruel but only 37% of people thought leather from cows was. This did change when you looked at the respondents by age though, with nearly HALF of people aged 13-30 thinking that leather from cows was cruel.

The Vegan Society’s report is an interesting read on how people’s views are shifting on animal products in fashion, as that difference in respondents by age shows—it is generational. And the report goes further into these customer preconceptions around the materials used in our fashion. Interestingly, around 25% (or one in 4) responded said they had NOT heard of plant leather before, but were interested in purchasing it now they had. In fact, if you tally-up all the survey responses, only 17% of respondents said they were opposed to or were not planning to purchase fashion items made from plant leather in the future. That’s over 80% of shoppers being open to the idea of buying items made from plant-based leather alternatives. And not only were they willing to buy them, over 70% said they would be willing to pay more for them too—but this figure came with caveats. They would only be prepared to spend more if: the quality and durability was as good as animal-based leather; if it was proven to be more sustainable or if it was proven to be more ethical. Less than 15% said they would NOT be willing to pay more for plant-based leathers, but they WOULD be willing to pay the same.

As I said before, I guess it’s my job to read these reports and tell you what’s in them so that you don’t have to, but it’s worth going and finding the full survey results on The Vegan Society’s website yourself if you are in the vegan fashion market—because we can see from these figures alone that the consumer interest is high for vegan fashion. In fact, nearly half of those surveyed said they would like to see more ‘vegan-verified’ fashion across all clothing ranges. But there’s still a lot of education needed.

For example, over a quarter of people responding to the survey said they would expect to find animal derivatives in materials like faux fur. Now, this is really interesting, and there HAVE been a couple of cases where products marketed as false fur actually turned out to include animal fur, but this may also be similar to how different consumers look at meat alternatives. To some vegans and vegetarians, especially long-term ones, the idea of something that replicates the taste and texture of meat can turn your stomach. I remember the first time Lisa and I tried the Beyond Burger and it was actually really uncomfortable to eat. For us, it was TOO close and we struggled to eat them. And it may be that we’re seeing the same thing with fur. People would rather just move away from the product altogether rather than buy false fur, and have the possibility of getting it wrong or have people assume they are wearing animal fur. In fact, legislation may soon make it impossible to buy animal fur anyway—this year, Israel became the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur for fashion, and two local councils in the UK also banned the sale of fur—that was Oldham Council in Manchester in 2018 and Islington Council in London in 2019. The British Fashion Council also took notice and in 2018, London Fashion Week became fur-free along with many high-end fashion brands.

And the rise in fashion that is vegan is only going to grow. The last stat I’ll pull from The Vegan Society report is what individual fashion sectors people would like to see more vegan options in. Clothing that was usually made from animal leather was at the top as you would expect, followed very closely by bags, backpacks and footwear. Looking further down the list though, vegan hats, caps and scarves came in at just under 20% of respondents saying they would like to see more vegan options, showing there’s still a good market for such niche products.

And celebrities have been quick to back the trend. It has been almost impossible to buy a Telfar bag since Oprah Winfrey said the vegan-leather bags were ‘one of her favourite things’ and it has been seen as this year’s must-have celebrity accessory. Actress Millie Bobby Brown partnered with Converse to create a line of vegan shoes. Formula One Driver Lewis Hamilton teamed up with Tommy Hilfiger, to bring out a new range of predominately vegan clothing. Even singer Justin Bieber launched his new fashion line, Drew House with a 100% vegan range. The vegan sector even has our own fashion awards now, with PETA’s Vegan Fashion Awards highlighting not just great products, but companies who have made the most progress and categories like the most iconic vegan fashion moment of the year—which in 2020 was awarded to Queen Elizabeth II for going fur-free.

It’s not just clothing in fashion, though, that is seeing a lot of ethical improvement. Vegan industrialist and environmentalist Dale Vince recently launched his latest company Sky Diamond who are manufacturing diamonds from carbon captured from, you guessed it, the sky. Having already revolutionised the electricity supply market with Ecotricity and football with the league-one vegan club Forrest Green Rovers, our very own vegan Willy Wonka does it again with precious stones. And actually, because these diamonds are created by a mechanical process that takes carbon from the sky, they are arguably better quality than diamonds dug up from the ground, but with none of the human or environmental impact.

So this brings us back to a common theme in these Vegan Business Tribe podcasts: The marketplace for vegan products (and fashion is no different) is far larger than the number of vegans we currently have in the world. Somewhere between 2-5% of the population identify as vegan depending on how you measure it, but the vegan fashion sector is forecast to be worth over a trillion US dollars in less than six years. So all that demand cannot be coming just from vegans. The huge shift is in the general public, who are all becoming more ethically led in their buying decisions and also starting to make the connection with our relationship with animals. Leather IS the skin of a dead cow. The down in your jacket is not just feathers, it’s the softest layer of feathers that grow the closest to the bird’s skin, that are ripped from ducks and geese sometimes whilst they are still alive. A PETA investigation of more than 30 wool shearing sheds in the US and Australia uncovered rampant abuse of sheep—and the organisation has continued to provide evidence showing it’s a cruel and bloody industry. People who do not identify as vegan are choosing vegan fashion options, or looking for the term ‘vegan’ to indicate that a product is more ethical or has less environmental impact. Even if we have to accept these consumers have a degree of hypocrisy—in the same way that people won’t use a beauty product that has been tested on animals but are still happy to eat those animals. For vegans, this just shows that we ARE making a real difference. And a potentially big one. For businesses, that means if you are thinking of getting into vegan fashion, there is a potentially HUGE customer base for your product. However, as I’ve mentioned in this session—the biggest fashion brands in the world are already out there trying to cater to this market. They don’t want to lose their customers, they want to transition with them. So you need to make your offering remarkable and connect with these new ethical customers better than the big brands can. That might be innovation in the products you make, so you might want to create designs for your product that 99% of the population hate but 1% love, and love with a passion and tell everyone about them. Take the Viva La Vegan clothing company who don’t just create vegan clothes, they create ‘statement-ware’ favoured by vegan activists such as Russell Brand. Or you might want to show how your company is more ethical than the big-brand competition. I mean, how can a company claim they are truly doing this for the animals when they have a single vegan product and the majority of their other products are made from animal skin? The majority of customers for vegan products are, usually, non-vegans. And as I often say in these podcasts, if you have a vegan company and are just selling to people who have already gone vegan, then you’re kind of missing the point of having a vegan company!

 

Photo: Viva La Vegan homepage

And so finally, while I’m getting all ethical and ‘campaigny’—what do you actually do if you do still have clothes and fashion items that are made from animal products in your wardrobe? And this is a question many new vegans come up against, in fact we even got asked this in one of our business clinics on the Vegan Business Tribe website. When you first turn vegan, you might already have a wardrobe full of leather and wool items—and it’s down to each vegan to decide what they are going to do with them. I was at a talk by vegan environmentalist Chris Packham a few weeks ago who showed everyone his leather belt. An odd thing for a vegan to wear perhaps, but the reason he continues to wear it was because it was older than many people in the audience; and he said once it broke (if it ever did) he would then replace it with a non-leather belt. But it still had usefulness and he didn’t want to create demand for yet another item to be made. Compare that to vegan activist and author John Awen who tells his story of running down his local high-street bare-foot and having to hold his trousers up looking for non-leather shoes and a belt, because the moment he turned vegan he couldn’t bear the thought of having animal products on his body. Neither is the wrong approach, and most vegans I know would prefer to give their non-vegan clothes to a charity shop rather than just put them into landfill once they turn vegan.

I’ve digressed slightly there, but it just goes to show we’ve all got our own relationship with vegan fashion. So, let’s just cast our eye back over what we’ve covered in this episode and see what nuggets we can take away from what impact vegan is having on the fashion industry.

1. The vegan fashion market is estimated at 337 billion US dollars. By 2027, it is estimated that will have increased to 1095 billion dollars. That’s more than tripling in the next 6 years.
2. North America dominated the market for vegan women’s fashion, accounting for nearly 35% of the global sales in 2019. But we’re seeing the most growth in Europe and 90% of urban Chinese shoppers said they preferred animal-free leather.
3. There are lots of ways that animal products can get into our clothing and accessories without us realising it. That’s why so many companies are looking to third-party verification such as The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark—in fact, the number of products in the Society’s trademark directory under the fashion category have doubled in just a single year.
4. The change in the vegan fashion sector is being led by the younger generation, with half of people aged 13-30 thinking that leather from cows is cruel.
5. The change is also being led by materials innovation. Leather from apples and silk from bamboo IS just downright cool and a real talking point about the product you have just bought.
6. There is a huge marketplace for vegan fashion—but the biggest part of that market is non-vegans looking for more ethical options. So how are you going to do something different and innovative to the big fashion brands to attract those customers to you?

And that is it. As I said, if you want to go check out that Vegan Society report for yourself, just search for ‘The Rise of Vegan Fashion’ by the Vegan Society and it should come up at the top of your results. And on that last final point about doing something that separates you from the big brands, we cover this specifically in our vegan business marketing course on the Vegan Business Tribe website. How you can make your company remarkable and stand out from your competitors is one of the best and possibly most challenging modules on the course, and I’m also there to answer your submitted questions at the end of each chapter, so go check it out.

 

You might have thought these brands were vegan…but they aren’t. Check out the blog!

Live in Canada? Check out my 2020 blog on the ultimate vegan fashion guide.

What so bad about wool? Find out in this blog on wool production and similar practices.

 

Header photo: GnL Accessories Owner Vinita Turakhia with Akira Tote Bag – Natural

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