We looked at Animal Materials in the Fashion Industry (Spoiler: it’s not Fun)

In full support of the Fashion Revolution movement, we jumped at the chance to ask the fashion industry some questions. For that, we looked at animal-material supply chains in fashion and the things we found out are, well, horrible. Get ready.

Fashion Revolution Week – Why it's an amazing, but incomplete concept – Antagonist
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April 26, 2021

Words – Eric Mirbach
Research – Collective Fashion Justice
Illustrations – Very Good Looking
Photos – Jo-Anne McArthur / Weanimals

Trigger Warning: This article contains references to rape, slaughter and suicide.

Week 16, the week around April 24, has been declared Fashion Revolution Week and every year at this time, we remember the Rana Plaza disaster. In 2013, the 8-story-building, a textile production facility in Sabhar in Bangladesh, collapsed due to negligence by the owner and officials and took the lives of over a thousand people, with thousands more hurt and traumatized.

Every year, Fashion Revolution Week gives us a chance to open our eyes to the realities of the fashion industry and start asking producers, designers and brands questions. Questions like #WhoMadeMyClothes or #WhoMadeMyFabric.

“The idea is to ask uncomfortable questions and demand transparency.”

We are in full support of the movement and we, too, want to do our part in questioning the practices of this vast and, in big parts, irresponsible industry. But we also think that even ethical fashion brands don’t go far enough in their approach to changing fashion. 

Adding animal-derived Materials to the Discussion

Since the idea is to ask uncomfortable questions, and by that shining a light on things normally not discussed, we decided to take a slightly different path for 2021 Fashion Revolution Week. We teamed up with the good people of Collective Fashion Justice and Surge for a week-long collaboration to pose some additional questions.

We ran the initiative throughout Fashion Revolution Week on our respective social media channels, with posts and stories every other day, with the goal to add some talking points to the discussion.

With a focus on animal-materials in fashion and the pain and suffering caused in the accompanying supply chains, we asked:

Fashion Revolution Week – Who killed for my clothes? The impact of animal supply chains in fashion on Slaughterhouse Workers – Antagonist

#WhoKilledForMyClothes

No one really wants to work in a slaughterhouse. So the most vulnerable are made to do it. Upwards of 62% of slaughterhouse workers in the United Kingdom are migrants. In the United States, a large portion are migrants, refugees and oppressed people of color. Often undocumented, they work in constant fear of deportation.

In Australia, migrant and refugee slaughterhouse workers are common. In Canada, ‘express entry’ was offered to any Syrian refugee who would be willing to work in a slaughterhouse.

These Jobs are Dangerous

In six years of documentation in the United Kingdom, 800 workers suffered serious injuries, including 78 amputation and 4 people dying.

In the United States, Human Rights Watch referred to slaughterhouse jobs as the most dangerous in the country. Two amputations are needed each week.

More than Physical Injury

Perpetuation-induced traumatic stress (PITS) is similar to PTSD, but with a fundamental difference: The trauma comes not from being a victim. but being ‘the direct reason for another being’s trauma’.

“Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, anxiety, panic, depression, paranoia.”

Suffered by soldiers and slaughterhouse workers alike, symptoms include ‘drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, panic, depression, paranoia, amnesia’. The list goes on.

Additionally, the mental impact of slaughtering can, unfortunately, lead to thoughts of suicide of the act itself. For a BBC article, workers shared personal stories about depression triggered by the ‘relentless work’ and ‘being surrounded by death’ with led to ‘feeling suicidal’.

Violence creates more Violence

A study quoted in the Yale Global Health Review refers to a ‘spillover’ of violence from slaughterhouses to communities surrounding them. Paid to act violently, traumatized workers start to lash out at those around them. The data has shown disproportionately high numbers of violent offenses (including sexual assault and rape) in communities surrounding slaughterhouses.

Violence against women can never be justified by the perpetrator being traumatized of course, but it is critical we understand what contributes to the problem in order to solve it.

Check out the amazing work of Collective Fashion Justice on the impacts of the fashion industry on slaughterhouse workers here, with more fantastically researched and laid out facts and figures.
Fashion Revolution Week – Who hurt for my clothes? The impact of animal supply chains in fashion on farm workers – Antagonist

#WhoHurtForMyClothes

Raising animals for exploitation and slaughter has serious mental health impacts for many farmers.

Imagine you live out in the countryside with animals. You get to know them. You learn who likes a head scratch, you see mothers give birth to their young.

“And then, you have to send them away to be killed.”

 You start feeling a connection with them.  And then, you have to send them away to be killed, frightened as they are trucked to their death. This is the reality for many animal farmers in fashion supply chains, who connect with the animals they raise for slaughter.

73 Cows: Jay’s Story

A prime example, this short by Lockwood Films tells the story of cattle farmer Jay Wilde in the UK, who battles with his conscience every time he takes ‘his’ cows to slaughter. It’s a beautiful yet haunting film, and we highly recommend it.

Beyond Mental Anguish

Fashion Revolution’s own ‘Out of Sight’ report shows that there are many other issues facing humans who farm in animal-derived fashion supply chains.

In Brazil, one of the world’s  top producers of animal skin, illegal mistreatment of farming workers is rife.

“Poor working conditions, labor trafficking, forced labor or dept bondage— all direct results of fashion supply chains.”

Similarly, poor working conditions, labor trafficking and instances of forced labor have been documented in Paraguay and Vietnam, both involved in ‘production’ for leather supply chains.

Brazil’s ‘Dirty List’

Cattle ranching in Brazil accounts for more than 60% of the nation’s ‘Dirty List’ — a collection of employers that are linked to labor trafficking, dept bondage and other forms of forced labor.

Both the personal stories and the facts and numbers should matter to the fashion industry, as they are both part and often direct result of fashion supply chains.

Again, find more facts and figures by the good folks of Collective Fashion Justice on this section of their website.
Fashion Revolution Week – Who made my clothes? The impact of animal supply chains in fashion on shearers and tannery workers – Antagonist

#WhoMadeMyClothes

When we thought abozt of Fashion Revolution’s OG question, #WhoMadeMyClothes, it became apparent that we’re looking at the production process with a rather narrow focus all too often. Yes, the Fash Rev movement was sparked by the Rana Plaza disaster and so it’s only right to look at garment workers — but we’d like to add some additional thoughts if we might, to broaden the view a bit.

Jobs that cause Suffering

After all, the materials utilized daily by above-mentioned garment workers have to be produced first, and looking at animal-derived materials in particular reveals how animal supply chains not only cause suffering to the non-human animals killed within them, but to the humans commodified, exploited and hurt, as well.

“Just as we start to now consider the treatment of garment workers, we have to think of these other workers, too.”

Just as we ought to consider the treatment of garment workers sewing clothing in the wake of Rana Plaza, we have to include these other workers, too.

Herders and Shearing Workers

Shearers and herders suffer in fashion supply chains, too. While shearers face illegal mistreatment, herders report feeling trapped in an industry destroying their native land for wool and cashmere.

Tannery Workers

People of color working in tanneries confront health-related and environmental injustices, so consumers can wear animal skin.

To avoid environmental oversight penalties, 95% of US tanneries operate overseas, exporting environmental impacts and pollution to poor countries — a prime example of environmental racism.

Communal areas in top-tanning country China are referred to as ‘cancer villages’. The link between industry chemical pollution and cancer in low income communities is well studied. Leather production plays a definite role in this.

A deep-dive into additional facts and figures? Check out Collective Fashion Justice‘s overview of human suffering in animal supply chains.
Fashion Revolution Week – Who made my clothes? The impact of fashion supply chains on animals – Antagonist

#WhoWhereMyClothes

No we’ve looked at the toll working in animal material supply chains takes on slaughterhouse workers, farm workers, herders and shearing workers. But there’s something — or someone! — missing in that list: The animals.

Wool

Often seen as little more than ‘just a haircut’, both the realities of the shearing process and the monstrous size of the highly industrialized wool industry are very successfully hidden in plain sight.

Lambs are mutilated within weeks of birth. It is entirely legal and standard practice for their ears to be hole-punched and their tails chopped off without any pain relief. Males are castrated without painkillers. Almost all forms of painful mutilation are acceptable and legal in Australia, the United States, the UK, and many other countries around the world. 

“Almost all forms of painful mutilation are acceptable and legal in most countries of the world.”

It is claimed that, to prevent fly-strike, farmers in warmer regions like Australia need to perform a perfectly legal practice called mulesing, which involves cutting off the skin around the genitals and the anus of the animals, again without pain relief.  Plenty of animal sanctuaries however deliver proof that sheep can be protected from this disease by crutching (tightly shearing around their rear). It’s just less cost-effective, so it’s not done in the industrialized process.

Once no longer of use to the industry, sheep often are shipped around the globe in cruel live exports.

Ultimately, all sheep bred for wool are slaughtered and sold as ‘meat’ (which is why these animals are called ‘dual purpose’). Sheep can naturally live up to 14 years, however, once their wool is no longer of profitable quality, they are ‘worth more’ as ‘meat’.

Shearers are paid by volume, so accidents and viciousness are frequent. Undercover investigations showed workers mutiliating and beating sheep as they sheared them.

Using Australian fibre, producing a wool knit garment emits 27 times more greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions than a cotton knit garment.

Leather

Often referred to as a ‘by-product’, leather is made out to be financially insignificant. This argument is used to claim that buying leather is not really supporting animal slaughter, but rather reducing waste.  This is not accurate.

The leather industry is set to be worth $128.61 billion USD by 2022. While the skin of a cow slaughtered in the beef or the dairy industry may be worth less than their flesh, it is profitable all the same. That’s why these industries refer to cattle skins as a valuable ‘co-product‘.

“It’s simple: Buying leather funds slaughter.”

Abbatoirs who have reported reduced sales of cattle skins have seen multi-million dollar losses. It’s that simple: Buying leather funds slaughter.

Cattle are legally and painfully mutilated, often without pain relief, during ‘dehorning’, branding and castration. Best practice in the slaughter of cattle is to shoot the animal in the head with a captive bolt gun to render them unconscious, then slit their throat so that they bleed out. This method is regularly ineffective and never permanent. As a result, many cattle are killed while at least partially conscious.

The farming of cattle for beef and leather products is responsible for 80% of the Amazon’s deforestation. The other major driver of this deforestation is soy production, of which 80% goes towards animal feed.

Data shows that cow skin leather is the third most environmentally impactful material to produce, with even polyurethane synthetic leather having less than half the impact.

Animal agriculture emits 14,5% of all human-related greenhouse gases, with 65$ of these emissions coming from cattle, which make them more significant than the fuel exhaust of all planes, cars, and trains combined.

Fur

While fur, it seems, might very well be the first animal ‘material’ to disappear from fashion, we see the industry present them differently to keep sales going.

After all, 85% of all fur comes from animals who have been factory-farmed. Confined, the horrible conditions on these farms mentally break animals. They self-mutilate, pace in their tiny cages and fall into repeating behaviors like head nodding — both signs of psychological stress. Animals might even resort to cannibalism due to their severe stress.

“The horrible conditions of factory-farming mentally break these animals.”

The slaughter methods on factory farms, unsurprisingly, prioritize the monetary value of the furs and skins of the animals. One method of slaughter is the use of gas boxes, which cause a stressful, slow and painful death.

Another favored method is anal electrocution, as it ensures the fur to be untouched. On other farms, animals are simply beaten to death. A 2020 investigation revealed animals being bludgeoned and skinned alive.

Furs claimed to be ‘farm-free’ (a term used by parka brand Canada Goose among others) are not ‘more ethical’. Animals trapped in the wild are known to be thrashing in desperate attempts to escape, and are known to chew their own legs off, often breaking their teeth doing so.

While the fur industry has used terms like ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ in their advertisements, fur is toxic and and not biodegradable. Even studies funded by the fur industry have shown that almost all fur does not biodegrade.

Fur dressing, the process to make fur last and prevent decomposing, makes use of chemicals like formaldehyde and chrome, both known to be carcinogenic.

Meanwhile, an independent study showed that animal fur coats release more greenhouse gas emissions in their production than even virgin synthetic faux fur coats.

Down

In outerwear as well as for bedding, it still is the ‘default’ to use bird feathers as an insulating material. Praised as ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’, a lot of animal-derived materials have been used in fashion for centuries, even though the way they are sourced is problematic.

In ‘live plucking’, ducks and geese are plucked of their feathers for down products like parka jackets while they are alive. This is so that each time their feathers grow back, they can be painfully plucked out again.

“Birds cry out in pain while being live-plucked.”

This practice can cause skin tearing and even death by severe injury and is, in any case, so painful birds have been documented to cry out in pain while being plucked.

80 to 90% of down comes from China, where there are no nationwide laws prohibiting violence against animals.

Across the world, including in Australia, America and the UK, farmed animals are exempt from most or all animal protection legislation, making most cruelty totally legal if it is deemed ‘necessary’ to profitable industries.

Meanwhile, a FAO study conducted by the Animal Production and Health Division of the Food and Agriculture Division of the United Nations found that “over the past decades, the poultry sector’s growth and trends towards intensification and concentration have given rise to a number of environmental concerns.” Among them negative impacts on surface water and groundwater due to manure runoff, and antibiotics, pesticides and hormones leaking into waterways, ammonia and hydrogen sulfite polluting airways with a real impact on human health and negative impacts on soil quality.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Read up on silk, alpaca wool, cashmere, snake skin or ostrich feathers over at Collective Fashion Justice.

That’s why for Fashion Revolution Week, we asked #WhoKilledForMyClothes, #WhoHurtForMyClothes and #WhoWhereMyClothes.

„Fashion made of animals funds cruelty.“

Fashion made of animals funds cruelty and injustice for human and non-human animals alike. Supply Chains that contribute to mental suffering, bodily harm and structural injustices of all kinds are not ethical!

We feel honored that we got to work with organizations like Collective Fashion Justice and Surge to raise awareness for these questions and want to thank Fashion Revolution for their important initiative.

Additional neverending gratefulness goes to Jo-Anne McArthur’s WeAnimals — thank you for allowing us to use your incredibly important work to illustrate this series.

The last thing we want is to share these horrifying facts about the fashion industry without equipping you with alternative options.

Sp here’s a collection of the most intriguing ethical vegan fashion brands out there, curated by the Antagonist fashion department just for you!

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