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Fashion’s Animal Welfare Taboo

While most brands have banned fur, animal welfare is rarely discussed when it comes to more mainstream and lucrative fabrics like leather.
Cattle are seen in a corral before being transferred to a slaughterhouse.
Many big brands have yet to publish welfare standards for animals in supply chains for materials like leather. (Pablo Porciuncula Brune/AFP via Getty Images)

Key insights

  • Shifting attitudes towards animal cruelty have prompted many brands to ban fur. But when it comes to more lucrative and mainstream materials like leather, animal welfare barely features in the conversation.
  • Many brands have no formal animal welfare policy. Those that exist are often outdated and brands don’t have the supply chain traceability to implement them.
  • Efforts to address this gap are moving slowly, leaving brands open to potential reputational damage at a time when consumer attitudes can shift quickly.

In 2017, Gucci famously declared the use of animal fur “outdated” and removed the material from its product offering, setting off a flurry of fur-free commitments across the luxury industry.

Since then, that sentiment hasn’t filtered through to other animal-based materials, however. Most brands have resisted calls by animal rights groups to follow up their fur bans by ditching exotic skins. And many haven’t published policies governing how the animals in supply chains for popular items like leather handbags and woollen sweaters should be treated.

This points to a broader disconnect in the industry. Though shifting attitudes towards animal cruelty have moved fur from a luxury mainstay to a material avoided by all but a handful of labels, animal welfare is rarely discussed when it comes to more mainstream and lucrative fabrics like leather.

More than 40 percent of the 250 brands assessed as part of Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index last year had no animal welfare policy in place. And even where companies do have public standards, they are often outdated, according to animal rights groups. Few companies have enough visibility over their supply chains to credibly implement them.

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“The majority of businesses using animal derived materials are doing very little to nothing to protect animals,” said Jessica Medcalf, textiles programme lead at animal welfare organisation Four Paws International in an email.

Why Cows Don’t Count

When Vanessa Barboni Hallik quit banking to launch her brand Another Tomorrow in 2018, she set a hard line to exclude any materials that required harming or killing animals.

The company doesn’t use leather, or even silk. Its wool comes from farms carefully selected for responsible operating practices and with a direct relationship to the brand. That’s still a risk in an industry where leather products remain a huge commercial driver for most luxury labels.

“I didn’t change my entire career to compromise on this,” Barboni Hallik said. Most of her customers don’t particularly care (especially when it comes to silk worms). “It’s an uphill battle with customers. By and large they care more about the environment and human welfare, but it’s also just an awareness thing,” she said.

Unlike mink or crocodile which are largely bred, captured and killed purely for their pelts and skins and used in luxury products, materials like leather and wool are products of the meat industry and very mainstream. The associated animal rights issues are complicated and nuanced.

Many brands argue that without the leather industry hides would simply be sent to rot in landfills. The material — prized in fashion for its versatility, durability and cultural value, as well the high volumes of sales it drives — is essentially upcycled and governed by existing standards for the meat industry, according to leather groups.

Meanwhile, growing awareness of leather’s climate impact and links to deforestation have overshadowed conversations about its impact on animals. Fashion media’s coverage of the issue (including BoF’s) largely ignores animals, according to an analysis by sustainable fashion advocacy organisation Collective Fashion Justice.

Even bringing up the subject of animal welfare in conversations with brands can be a little taboo, according to sustainability campaigners. “There’s a bit of a thing that it’s unprofessional,” said Collective Fashion Justice founding director Emma Hakansson. “It’s not very fashionable, it’s not sexy to talk about it. It’s too brutal.”

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While there are farmers that make great efforts to raise animals in an ethical manner, standards and regulations can vary widely. Animal welfare concerns range from the living space given to cattle kept on feedlots to whether anaesthesia is used during common, but painful practices like dehorning (the process of removing a young calf’s horn to protect both livestock and cows from goring), as well as the conditions in which animals are transported and slaughtered.

“The fashion industry is very lazy when it comes to understanding animal supply chains and implementing policy,” said PJ Smith, director of fashion policy at US-based animal welfare charity The Humane Society. “If brands just did a little bit of homework and really asked, ‘is this something we want to be associated with?’ I think they would start to embrace alternatives … [but] they’re doing the bare minimum.”

The Murky Journey From Farm to Fashion

Things are beginning to change; a growing number of brands are introducing formal animal welfare policies, according to analysis by Four Paws and sustainability ratings platform Good on You. But, most of them remain “inadequate” and “outdated,” the analysis concluded.

Though it’s significant more brands are putting in place minimum standards, by and large they don’t reflect the latest scientific research, which recommends animal welfare efforts should not only seek to avoid harm, but set out to improve the lives of animals.

Moreover delivering on these commitments requires brands to understand where their raw materials come from, and almost none do.

The leather supply chain is particularly long and opaque. Cattle may move to multiple farms in their lifetime before being sent to the slaughterhouse. Hides can travel across continents for tanning, dyeing and manufacturing before reaching the hands of a fashion house.

“If you want to source leather that you can genuinely be assured that you know everything that has happened — where that cow was raised; birthing [and feedlot conditions]; if they were branded; if they were dehorned; if they were dehorned, was there pain relief; how they were slaughtered — you cannot source leather in that way,” said Collective Fashion Justice’s Hakansson. “That is the issue.”

Many brands point to certifications as a way to help bridge that gap, but only around three percent of wool on the market was certified in 2021, according to Textile Exchange. There is currently no leather certification that covers animal welfare.

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Work is underway to address traceability challenges and update industry standards in line with the latest thinking. The Leather and Hide Council of America has put in place a programme to trace hides back to the abattoir, while Textile Exchange is leading a working group to try and improve traceability in the leather supply chain. Both groups are looking to connect existing animal welfare certifications and standards used in the food industry to fashion. But the efforts are in early stages.

“There has been movement,” said Anna Heaton, animal fibres and materials lead at Textile Exchange. There’s a “rounding of understanding that animal welfare is many faceted.”

A Shifting Market

For fashion, how this conversation evolves has big financial implications at a time when cultural acceptability can shift quickly.

To be sure, leather occupies a very different place in the industry than fur. It’s sold in much higher volumes to a much wider range of consumers. Shoppers who still eat animals are less likely to respond to emotionally-charged campaigns against materials associated with the meat industry.

But failing to address animal welfare concerns may expose brands to reputational damage at a time when attitudes are gradually beginning to change.

In many countries, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are on the rise, driven in part by concerns over animal welfare, as well as the climate crisis and mounting interest in health and wellness. Last year, the volume of accessories like handbags and belts made from animal leather on the market fell 10 percent, according to trend forecasting agency WGSN. There were multiple reasons for the decrease, including shifting fashion trends. But growing appetite for ethical and animal-free fashion played a part, said Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion at WGSN.

There are subtle changes taking place in the industry, too. Nike and Puma have both moved to ban kangaroo leather — historically used in some sports shoes — this year. Companies including Moda Operandi and Burberry said they would stop using exotic skins over the last 12 months. Ganni is ditching leather in an effort to meet its climate change commitments.

Meanwhile, next-generation materials are rapidly maturing. Though right now most options on the market contain plastic and struggle to compete with leather on performance and quality, there’s a lot of investment going into developing and scaling competitive alternatives.

When that happens it could transform consumer perceptions around the ethics of animal-based materials, sustainability advocates say.

Brands “shouldn’t be waiting for a Netflix ‘mic drop’ moment,” said Muston, referring to the ways in which documentaries on the popular streaming service have helped shape thinking on topics from plastic to regenerative agriculture. Brands that want to lead the cultural conversation need to be thinking beyond reducing harm, to consider “how could a product benefit the environment and really shift the thinking?” she said.

For more BoF sustainability coverage, sign up now for our Weekly Sustainability Briefing by Sarah Kent.

Editor’s Note: This article was amended on Mar. 16, 2023 to amend the spelling of Emma Hakansson’s name.

Further Reading

The Truth About ‘Vegan Leather’

Leather alternatives have been boosted as eco-innovation and dismissed as mere plastic, but the truth is more complicated than that and demands clearer marketing to avoid misleading consumers.

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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