For the 8th year in a row a record number of people have taken part in Veganuary 2021. Almost 600,000 people signed up to a vegan diet for January with the support of recipes, nutrition tips and recommendations for places to eat and buy vegan food. Research estimates that the number of vegans in the UK increased by 40% in 2020 and is set to increase by 132% by the end of 2021. Accordingly, vegan fashion is growing in demand, with MycoWorks Reishi mushroom leather recently attracting US$45 million in funding, the vegan leather market is set to reach US$89.6 billion by 2025.

But how environmentally friendly are vegan leathers, and how straightforward is it for companies to integrate them into their collections? In addition to MycoWorks, over the past couple of years we’ve seen a huge surge in the development of materials such as Pinatex (made from pineapple leaves) Desserto (made from cactus) and Vegea (made from waste from the wine industry). This is as well as lab-grown leather from VitroLabs and  Zoa by Modern Meadow. However, apart from Pinatex which started development in the 1990’s, they are not yet commercially available. Many companies (including Beyond Skin!) are currently toying with recycled synthetics as a more ecologically conscious fashion choice.

While the food industry can quickly cultivate new products – think the Impossible Burger – due to food technology and the accessibility to scale up manufacturing systems, the fashion industry is slower to change. For fashion companies to truly adjust to using environmentally friendly vegan leather will take a big shift in manufacturing infrastructure and product forms. The industry’s current reliance on archaic manufacturing systems – many of which are used to processing animal materials – makes change complex, particularly from a quality perspective. What is required is not only financial investment, but a systems overhaul between how design companies and material technologists work together to determine the required properties and social and cultural values of materials.

While Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat changed the landscape of meat alternatives, the vocabulary used to describe vegan foods has also evolved. The term ‘plant-based’, to describe foods which contain no animal products has become huge, positioned in order to attract vegans and non-vegans alike. Those such as Deliciously Ella who don’t integrate imitation meat products in their recipes have adopted the ethos of ‘plant-based’ quite literally by focusing on the variety and abundance of unprocessed fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. The accessibility of the recipes which commonly use familiar ingredients claims to have got people in the kitchen more, connecting us to what is actually going into the meals we eat.

Labelling on the front of pre-packaged food is much clearer when it comes to vegan products. It is also a legal requirement for food products to list their ingredients in order of weight as well as the country of origin or place of provenance, and fashion could certainly learn a thing or two from this. It is possible that once all of the ‘ingredients’ used to create fashion products are more widely communicated – from raw materials to chemicals – it will only further increase the demand for the most natural and recognisable components.

For many, the choice to become vegan is a starting point in questioning our human relationship to nature. With this in mind, do those of us buying vegan fashion products want something that looks like it could be mistaken for an animal material? Should vegan fashion utilise the one-off nature of organic materials which more readily connects people to nature? The answer is not straightforward, nor is it a one-size-fits all approach.

By Naomi Bailey-Cooper

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