There’s a lot to be said for making conscious, ethical choices when it comes to your wardrobe. You don’t even have to be a vegan to want to buy sustainably produced, cruelty-free clothing that’s also made by workers who are paid and treated fairly. After all, who really wants to wear something that caused someone or something to suffer? But as with any significant lifestyle change, it can be tricky to know where to begin.
What Makes Clothing and Accessories Vegan?
Vegan clothing and accessories are those made with no animal products—that means no leather or exotic skins, fur, wool, feathers, or silk. It also means that there are no animal-based materials used in construction or composition, like dyes or glues. While plenty of synthetic alternatives exist, those synthetics come at a cost to the planet. This is why it’s important to choose vegan products that are made from sustainable and recyclable materials. And if your mission is to truly do no harm, you’ll also want to steer clear of fast fashion that relies on inhumane working conditions and low wages to turn around low-cost clothing and accessories at a profit.
The good news is that sustainable, ethical, and genuinely cruelty-free fashion does exist—and it doesn’t mean you have to don a burlap sack. Just like cruelty-free beauty, mindful vegan fashion is being embraced by more and more designers with each passing season, meaning you don’t have to sacrifice style to live conscionably.
Sustainable Material Alternatives
When shopping for your next handbag, pair of shoes, or winter coat, you’ll want to keep in mind the kinds of sustainable material alternatives available to you. Here is a breakdown of animal-derived materials and their eco-friendly options.
Leather + Exotic Skins
Sustainable alternatives: Cork, pineapple leather, mushroom leather, recycled plastics
When shopping for vegan leather clothing and accessories, you’ll likely come across many pleather, or PVC, alternatives. While you’re saving the life of an animal, pleather is derived from petroleum and doesn’t biodegrade. Look instead for sustainable options such as cork, pineapple leather (made from the leaves of the pineapple plant), and mushroom leather or MuSkin, made from the mycelium mushroom. You may also consider vegan leather made from recycled plastics—a pretty common alternative.
Sustainable alternatives: Linen, hemp, bamboo
Though animals are not killed for wool like they are for leather and fur, their humane treatment is not a guarantee in either how they are raised or sheered, so it’s best to opt for a natural, animal-free option instead. Though acrylic fibers are a common wool alternative, they are not the most sustainable choice. Choose plant-based fibers like linen, hemp, or bamboo.
Sustainable alternatives: Bamboo rayon/silk, modal, TENCEL®/lyocell
Silk, derived from the silkworm, involves a particularly cruel production process. Silkworms are drugged and kept in tight quarters before being boiled alive to harvest their silk (and before you pass them off as “just bugs,” consider that they are sensate). Thankfully, many silk alternatives exist, including rayon, modal, and lyocell, all derived in part from plant cellulose.
Sustainable alternatives: synthetic down, PrimaLoft, Thinsulate
Feathers are most commonly used to make winter coats warm, but this by-product of the meat industry is hardly necessary. Synthetic down, including PrimaLoft and Thinsulate, are sustainable, recyclable (or already made from recycled fibers), and actually dry faster than the real thing.
Given the barbaric provenance of fur, it’s hardly a viable choice for any fashionable animal lover. While faux fur is a popular alternative, it’s made of plastic and far from sustainable. You may also risk buying real fur falsely labeled as fake, (particularly with fur trim, such as that on a pom-pom hat or jacket hood). Always check that either the hairs are bound together by canvas or by burning a strand at home to see if it burns like human hair or melts like plastic.
Where Can I Buy Ethical, Eco-Friendly Vegan Clothing and Accessories?
With an understanding of sustainable, vegan materials, you’ll next want to know where and from whom you can buy ethically. “Slow fashion” will cost a bit more upfront than disposable fast fashion, but you’ll be investing in high-quality pieces that will last you years instead of winding up in a landfill after a season. For everything vegan, ethical, sustainable, and cruelty-free, try online marketplace Flora & Fauna, or one of these twenty-one ethical, sustainable, and cruelty-free clothing and accessory brands.
Bleed Clothing: Active and street-wear lines for both men and women (plus eco-friendly denim!)
Blue Canoe: A women-run San Francisco-based company selling clothing and lingerie made from bamboo.
Cri de Coeur: Sustainable, affordable, fashion-forward shoes, boots, and bags.
Dauntless: Sustainable and stylish vegan leather jackets and bags.
Eve Cork: Affordable luxury handbags, backpacks, duffels, and more, all made from sustainable cork.
Insecta Shoes: Brazilian company that transforms used clothing and recycled plastic bottles into nature-inspired shoes.
John Bartlett: New York-based fashion designer and vegan whose collections support independent animal rescues, Farm Sanctuary, and his own non-profit rescue, The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund.
Labante London: Stylish, sustainable bags made from recycled materials (as are their dust bags and swing tags!)
LÉ BUNS: An Australia-based company offering ethical intimates and swimwear.
Matt and Nat: A wide range of sustainable vegan accessories, ranging from handbags to dog collars.
MeDusa: Ocean-inspired eco-friendly handbags from a female Israeli design duo.
Meli Bianco: Handbags and travel gear made from PU (polyurethane), a more sustainable alternative to PVC.
Miakoda: Sustainable athleisure and accessories made from plant fibers and manufactured right in NYC.
Moo Shoes: Stylish footwear, clothing, accessories, and more—plus brick and mortar locations in NYC and LA.
OlsenHaus: A celebrity footwear favorite found at places like Nordstrom, Barney’s, and even Amazon.
Patagonia: Not an exclusively vegan brand but strives to use recycled and natural materials while working hard to ensure fair labor practices and safe working conditions in their supply chain. Read labels to ensure a vegan product.
Synergy Organic Clothing: Sustainable options for both men and women.
Threads 4 Thought: Sustainable, environmentally-friendly activewear and stylish athleisure for men and women.
Vaute Couture: Cruelty-free, super warm winter coats inspired by “twenty years of Chicago winters.”
Vege Threads: Swimwear, intimates, and everyday basics designed with sustainability and ethics in mind.
Photo Credit: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock