Being “good” isn’t as easy as it might first seem. In theory, it’s as simple as minimizing the harm you cause. This is the line of thinking that often prompts people to make decisions like giving up meat, or, in the case of clothing, refusing to wear any materials made from animals—specifically leather, fur, silk, pearls, wool, and feathers.
But in reality, we live in a big, complex, connected world, and the consequences for our actions and decisions aren’t always easy to assess. Sadly, the possible ways that we can cause harm are seemingly infinite, and the chances of our doing so practically inescapable. And sometimes what seems like the simplest or most correct approach, when examined closely, is actually just another tricky thicket of moral quandaries.
Such is the case with vegan clothes, as poet and writer Melissa Kwasny argues in her forthcoming book Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear. She travels around the world, meeting with leather crafters in Alaska, silk spinners and dyers in Japan, pearl cultivators in Mexico, and mink farmers and furriers in Denmark, among others. Her research covers the economics of clothing manufacturing, the traditions of crafting, and the environmental and moral impact of the choices that consumers make. And although Kwasny never pretends it’s easy to know what’s right, she does come to a conclusion after all of her research and encounters: We should not replace natural materials with synthetics. “Buy clothes. Not very many. Made mostly from plants and animals. Then cherish and care for them,” she writes.
It is alarming to consider that the clothes we wear often involve the slaughter of millions of creatures. Some companies have decided not to sell silk, as ASOS did last year, in recognition of the silkworms that are sacrificed in the manufacturing of the product. Many brands like Armani, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney, and most recently Chanel, have stopped using fur. Some countries are even contemplating a fur ban, as the British legislature debated in June.
But most clothing isn’t made from creatures. In 2010, the majority of textiles produced in the world, 85%, were woven from cotton and polyester. Neither of these fabrics uses any animals—one is natural, and the other synthetic. “Both are responsible for widespread pollution of waterways, soils, and air,” Kwasny writes. “Both consume enormous amounts of resources.” In other words, in choosing the materials that are alternatives to “cruel” clothing, we’re also making the world more toxic for humans and animals and endangering the long-term health of the planet. We are still making choices with consequences—just because you won’t wear fur doesn’t mean you’re ethically in the clear.
Cotton, for example, is the world’s most profitable nonfood crop, and 11% of pesticides used worldwide are sprayed on these plants. These pesticides are harmful to people and the environment in the regions where cotton is grown. And cotton crops requires lots of water, which is itself a precious and dwindling resource that animals and humans need to survive. Kwasny notes that nearly all the water in Pakistan’s Indus River—97% of it—is devoted to growing cotton. It takes about 5,300 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans, which means that even our natural fabrics are extremely taxing for the planet.
Meanwhile, natural polymers like viscose, lyocell, and acetate, which are derived from wood fibers such as bamboo or beech, are not carbon neutral. The processes involved in making these allegedly eco-friendly fabrics rely on acids and sulfates that release harmful carbon emissions linked to human-induced climate change.
Then there’s the toxic process of manufacturing polyesters, nylons, and other synthetics, which are now used more widely than natural fabrics,. Synthetics, which make up 60% of the textile production in the world, rely on petrochemicals that are severely harmful to the environment. And the process of producing petrochemicals, which relies on the manipulation of fossil fuels, is harmful too. Burning fossil fuels and petrochemicals releases materials like ash, nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon into the atmosphere, all of which contribute to acid rain and degrade the planet.
For example, Kwasny notes, a single factory in England producing nylon was responsible for 3% of the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. She also points out that synthetics require more washing and are less durable than many natural materials, ultimately resulting in more water waste and increased disposal of clothing. Every time we wash a polyester item, we’re releasing plastics into the world’s waterways and ultimately leading to the death of flora and fauna. Microfiber pollution, which affects all oceans and coasts worldwide, has been called “the biggest environmental problem you never heard of.”
Add to that the fact that synthetic materials, which are not biodegradable, are piling up in landfills and leaching chemicals into our soil and water, and suddenly it’s not so clear that we should be building up our reliance on these materials. Vegan shoes made of plastics that seem like leather are fantastic in theory, but in practice, they have adverse effects on the planet at every step in their manufacture, sale, use, disposal, and slow decay—problems that a pair of leather shoes do not contribute.
That’s not all. Clothing supply chains are complex and extensive. Apart from production, there’s also the question of distribution, and carbon emissions resulting from the transport of goods around the world.
Last but not least is the matter of people. Clothing is now manufactured cheaply by exploiting labor markets in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka, with few protections for workers. This not only endangers the people in factories, but renders the products made by artisans using traditional, slow, and labor-intensive techniques less valuable, and ultimately threatens to make the crafts they practice obsolete.
Kwasny, along with the craftspeople with whom she speaks, suggests that it is possible to produce fur, silk, and the like while treating animals and the natural world with respect. It’s true, for example, that to spin enough silk for a kimono requires thousands of silkworms, and that sericulturalists kill these worms once they’ve spun a cocoon around themselves. But the work of farming silk involves a deep interaction with the natural world.
Silkworms eat mulberry leaves, which are themselves living things, and might possibly be conscious. To provide for these creatures, silk farmers, or sericulturalists, grow trees and feed the worms until they have spun a cocoon around themselves. Kwasny notes that traditionally, Japanese silk workers were grateful to their worms and respectful of the creatures’ contributions, referring to them with honorifics as they hand-fed them leaves. Today, the few silk workers who remain feel the same connection to their worms, though the products the people and creatures produce together are no longer as coveted and respected by consumers as they once were.
The worms don’t survive the manufacturing process—a delicate endeavor involving unraveling, and then re-spinning, the silk the creatures make. But silk moths don’t live very long in nature after they emerge from cocoons, and eating them also sustained people. Nothing went to waste, and throughout the silk-creation process, farmers and artisans acknowledged that their lives were intertwined with those of the worms.
Similarly, when Kwasny visits a mink fur farm in Denmark, she remarks on the astounding care the creatures receive. While she’s not immune to arguments that the fur market is cruel, and she acknowledges that it’s difficult to determine the right position on ethical consumption, she notes that the mink farmers are much closer to nature than most people. They know their minks and check in on them from morning until night, feeding them, cleaning up their spaces, ensuring that the animals are healthy and getting along. During mating season, the humans look in on the minks every 20 minutes to make sure males and females are happy. They raise the puppies whose mothers die in childbirth and they get to know them. And the farmers themselves don’t gloss over the darker parts of their profession; they admit that each creature they raise has an individual character, that sometimes they grow attached to the animals, and that the nature of their work is bloody.
It’s harder for Kwasny to judge the farmers involved in this business as she comes to understand their humanity, and sees for herself their deep, reciprocal relationship with nature. She also notes that a mass-produced fur coat is still impossible to make. To produce a pelt, an individual mink must be raised and slaughtered; then the pelt must be sold, stretched, measured, sewn, and put together. This level of investment in an item of clothing imbues it with a certain gravitas, and places the wearer in a long tradition of human adornment that relies on creatures and craftsmanship—a process that acknowledges that we are not alone on Earth and that we are not exempt from nature’s demands that all living things interact and depend on each other.
What’s most interesting about Kwasny’s all-around illuminating book is that it offers no easy answers and shows just how widely views range on the ideal relationship that humans ought to have with animals. When she shows an indigenous American friend pictures of the mink farm in Denmark, the friend is horrified, but not because animals are being killed. For the friend, the scale of production is the problem, not the fact of using animals for fur.
In a reciprocal relationship, you take only what you need, rather than as much as possible. Reciprocity emerges as the theme of Kwasny’s book. “The natural world is responsive to human care for it and … we are dependent on its health for our own survival,” Kwasny writes. “Reciprocity begins with awareness. It is guided by respect and restraint. It always involves an expression of gratefulness.”
In order to have a reciprocal relationship with the world, then, we have to be aware that it’s impossible to be ethically pure. It’s pleasant to think of oneself as a kind and gentle person, but it’s better to be brutally honest and understand that the best any of us can do is be “goodish.” Recent research has shown that people who think of themselves as good tend to get defensive when confronted with evidence that they’ve fallen short of their moral aspirations, as Quartz’s Sarah Todd recently wrote.
Instead, it’s better to accommodate complexity and reject blanket answers that are convenient but untrue, and avoid insisting upon a foolish consistency, which as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Kwasny admits that, even after all her research, she doesn’t have a straightforward answer about how to wear clothing ethically. She writes:
I suppose I am like many people: an abolitionist, a reformist, and a believer in the status quo depending on the animal and the situation. Though I might think of myself as an abolitionist when it comes to live-plucked down or the trapping of bobcats with steel-jawed leg holds… I also value the complex world of intention, creation, dependency and vulnerability that is reflected between sheep and their shepherds, the sustainable pearl farmers in Mexico and their oysters, the sericulturalists and their silkworms in Japan.
Everything we make in the world is taken from the stuff of the Earth. Because we rely on our planet’s essential ingredients to survive, we must maintain its health. Kwasny isn’t urging everyone to buy fur or pluck birds for feathers. She is suggesting we face the complexity of our consumption. She writes: “To believe that we do no harm by abstaining from animal products is to tell ourselves a lie.”