The Most Powerful Fashion Statement of All
A Field Guide to Veganwear
by Mickey Z.
November 16, 2002
"I admit to having worn suede and leather myself for a while, but you just never felt clean, and it's degenerate anyway to use animal skins."
-- Andy Warhol
Vegans love to say that they make a difference three times a day-at each meal. But choosing to wear clothes that are not derived from animal products offers the compassionate, aware consumer the opportunity to lead by example all day long. That jacket is a mobile billboard. Those shoes are one continuous commercial. You've voted with your fashion dollar and said NO to fur, leather, wool, silk, and down. Perhaps you've also chosen union-made garments, maybe even organic or recycled fibers. Best of all, you've opted out of the endless manufacturing-and-consuming-and-disposing cycle by buying used (or is that "pre-worn"?). "Fur, down, silk, wool, and leather all cause suffering for animals. Why would I want to be a part of that when I can be cruelty-free, given the countless alternatives to all of these things?" asks vegan activist Pamela Rice.
But what happens when someone asks you why? As Rice demonstrates in her popular pamphlet, "101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian" (www.vivavegie.org) rocking foundations and changing minds requires facts-facts you won't find in the corporate media (and rarely even in the alternative media). Here's something to get you started.
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With all the negative publicity the fur industry has attracted over the years, it never fails to astonish me how many people can still unselfconsciously wear animal fur. More than 6 million animals per year are murdered so these individuals can pay outlandish prices to parade around in their pelts. Toss in a cigarette, a drink, an SUV, a burger, and a cell phone and you have American capitalism in a nutshell.
Since so much has been documented about the fur industry, I'll stick to the odious basics. There are two methods of slaughtering fur-bearing creatures. Almost three million of them (usually minks, foxes, chinchillas, and raccoons) are raised on so-called fur farms where they are imprisoned in cages often as small as 2.5 square feet for four animals. Since no federal law protects the animals on these farms, the conditions are predictably horrifying. The animals display the behavior of any creature under incredible duress: pacing, climbing, self-mutilating, cannibalism. After a life of misery, death does not come swiftly. The preferred method of execution is anal or genital electrocution. Described as experiencing "the intense pain of a heart attack while fully conscious," the animals literally are burned from the inside out...to prevent damage to the coat, of course. Alternate fur farm approaches include suffocation or neck-breaking however, this often results in the animals only being stunned and therefore skinned alive.
It gets worse (or at least just as despicable but in a different way).
Not all animals can be raised and confined in cages. Raccoons and foxes, for example, are trapped in the wild. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website (www.peta.org) describes the practice of trapping: "Animals...caught in steel-jaw leghold trap- the most widely used trap-endure excruciating pain from the steel bars clamped onto their legs, paws, and bodies. Some animals, especially mothers desperate to return to their young, will struggle to get loose, even chewing or twisting off their own legs to escape. Animals suffer for hours or even days in traps before trappers arrive to stomp on their chests or break their necks. The trapped animal is left to suffer blood loss, infection, gangrene, exhaustion, exposure, frostbite, shock, or attack by nonhuman predators. Other animals, such as beavers and muskrats, caught in underwater traps can struggle for up to 20 minutes before drowning."
Not surprisingly, these traps snare many unintentional victims like dogs, cats, and birds. These creatures are designated as "trash kills" because they lack the one characteristic that keeps the entire system alive: economic value.
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A great victory within the death industry has been keeping leather immune from the stigma of fur. Not only is leather marketed as discrete from the slaughterhouse that makes it possible, it enjoys an enviable reputation for "cool." Shoes, boots, sneakers, skirts, pants, and the ubiquitous motorcycle jacket-no other fiber or material can compete with the $1.5-billion-and-100-million-animal-skins-per-year U.S. leather industry.
One reason for an ever-expanding leather market is the fact that red meat consumption has dropped over the past 25 years. "Leather is not simply a slaughterhouse byproduct," says animal issues columnist Carla Bennett. "It's a booming industry and an important part of the slaughter trade, since skin accounts for approximately 50 percent of the total byproduct value of cattle." Leather is also made from slaughtered horses, sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs. Thus, the well-documented horrors of the slaughterhouse relate not only to what we eat but also to what we wear. "When dairy cows' production declines, for example, their skin is made into leather; the hides of their offspring, 'veal' calves, are made into high-priced calfskin," adds Bennett. "Thus, the economic success of the slaughterhouse (and the factory farm) is directly linked to the sale of leather goods."
Another tactic for procuring animal skins is hunting. Species such as zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, deer, kangaroos, elephants, eels, sharks, dolphins, seals, walruses, frogs, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes are murdered solely for their hides. These animals are often endangered or illegally poached-and death is rarely swift or painless. Alligators are clubbed with axes and hammers and may suffer for hours. Reptiles are skinned alive-or "flayed"-to achieve suppleness in the leather. Once flayed, they can take days to die. Kid goats are boiled alive.
A clever tactic of leather makers is to label their products "biodegradable" while pointing out that synthetic versions are usually petroleum-based. However, as detailed by Sally Clinton in Vegetarian Journal, the tanning process acts to "stabilize the collagen or protein fibers so that they are no longer biodegradable." In turn, the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology explains, "On the basis of quantity of energy consumed per unit of product produced, the leather-manufacturing industry would be categorized with the aluminum, paper, steel, cement, and petroleum-manufacturing industries as a gross consumer of energy." The primary reason for this is that over 95 percent of U.S. leather is chrome tanned. "All wastes containing chromium are considered hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)," writes Clinton. The PETA website goes even further:
Among the disastrous consequences of this noxious waste is the threat to human health from the highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde in the ground water near tanneries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average. People who work in tanneries are dying of cancer caused by exposure to dimethylformamide and other toxic chemicals used to process and dye the leather. The coal tar derivatives used are extremely potent cancer-causing agents. According to a study released by the New York State Department of Health, more than half of all testicular cancer victims work in tanneries.
However, as mentioned earlier, challenging the leather industry also involves debunking the added component of the material's reputation. This has already begun in the gay community. "To eroticize dead animals is gross," said Adam Hodgins, a member of the gay activist group, Triangle Trash, before protesting at a "Mr. Leather" contest in Ottawa. "We just want to be there to have a presence and say we have an issue with this," says Triangle Trash co-founder Jenn Dobbie. "A lot of animal rights people don't want to challenge it because they're afraid of being called homophobic. But we don't care." Hodgins, Dobbins, and other passed out pamphlets about the leather industry and suggested alternatives like vinyl and rubber shoes, clothing, and even whips. Vegetarian and animal rights groups are hoping such awareness can spread to other comrades. "It is time for bunny huggers and tree huggers to unite and throw out the leather Birkenstocks," says PETA's Poorva Joshipura. "There's nothing 'natural' about poisoning the Earth to make shoes, purses, and belts from animals' skins."
When Isuzu aired a commercial that depicted "Joe Isuzu" fantasizing about a luxury vacation in New York City wearing a large fur coat, PETA rightfully protested that the commercial undoubtedly attempted to "depict fur as glamorous." But what about the leather seats in just about every vehicle on the road? And why stop there? Automobiles are undoubtedly a form of non-vegan fashion. Each week in the U.S., cars, trucks, SUVs and other fossil-fuel burning killers flatten roughly one million animals. That number, of course, does not include insects or household "pets." It also does not count those living things (human, animal, and otherwise) that suffer or die due to exhaust emissions and the role they play in pollution and global warming. In addition, that weekly one million death count does not do justice to the innumerable creatures who perish when entire eco-systems are exterminated in order to make way for highways, off-ramps, parking lots, strip malls, and other auto-centric structures like the aforementioned airports. Then there's the use of substances like anti-freeze, bio-diesel fuel, hydraulic brake fluid, and asphalt binder-all of which contain animal ingredients. Finally, consider the faceless animals that suffer and die during the scientifically useless and morally indefensible laboratory testing of gasoline fumes. If you've said no to eating and wearing animals, you might want to take another look at that jalopy in your driveway.
"The more I ride my bike in heavy NYC traffic the more I pity the automobile," says Pamela Rice. "Sometimes I even laugh out loud. I love the feeling of cool air on my face. I can get there faster than you. I'm agile and never get caught in traffic. Me on my bike, versus a street full of cars, it's like playing musical chairs with people who weigh over 400 pounds. Fashionable? Sexy? I'd say pathetic."
"On the surface, it appears that wool is a benign product because, at least theoretically, it can be obtained without harming the sheep," states vegan author Joanne Stepaniak. "However, upon closer inspection, we find that the wool industry is actually very similar to the egg and dairy industries. While animals such as laying hens, dairy cows, and wool-bearing sheep are not immediately killed to procure their salable products, they suffer tremendously for years prior to their ultimate and unavoidable slaughter."
Like leather makers, the wool industry has benefited from a myth. In this case, most Americans believe that shearing sheep helps them from being burdened with too much wool. But, without human-enforced breeding methods, sheep would grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes. The heavy, wool-bearing sheep that we see today are products of selective breeding over many generations. These "mutants" produce far more wool than they were designed to produce. Then, when this unnatural coat is shorn, the denuded sheep suffer from the cold. "Sometimes on the big runs of Australia," says Freya Dinshah of the American Vegan Society, "thousands of newly-shorn sheep die of cold in one night when the weather turns unexpectedly cold."
"Horrors abound on sheep farms, including mutilating, painful surgical procedures that are performed without anesthesia," says Stepaniak. "These entail mulesing, the cutting of large strips of flesh off the hind legs to reduce fly problems, and tail docking, designed to preserve the salable condition of wool surrounding a sheep's anus, among others."
Roughly148 million Australian sheep produce 80 percent of the world's wool. According to Australian Law Reform Chairman, M.D. Kirby:
* 20-40 percent of lambs die at birth or before the age of eight weeks from cold or starvation.
* Eight million mature sheep die every year from disease, lack of shelter, and neglect.
* One million of these die within 30 days of shearing.
"These sheep are crammed onto ships by the tens of thousands, crowded into filthy pens, and packed so tightly they can barely move" Stepaniak adds. "As a result, thousands of sheep die each year from suffocation, trampling, or starvation."
There is a secondary manner in which the wool industry kills. Since coyotes prey upon domestic sheep, farmers rely on poisoned bait to kill the predators. Coyotes are poisoned, shot and burned alive by the hundreds of thousands every year by ranchers and the U.S. government for merely being coyotes. Countless other animals die from consuming the bait, including those who feed on poisoned carcasses. "These victims include golden eagles, bluebirds, hawks, falcons, badgers, bobcats, weasels, skunks, mink, martens, wild and domestic dogs, and bears," says Dinshah. The wool industry comes full circle back to the slaughterhouse because the huge profit made from wool encourages further domestic breeding, which ultimately results in the butchery of animals for food. As far back as 4000 B.C., sheep used to provide humans with wool were eventually slaughtered for meat. "Thus," declares Dinshah, "from early times there existed moral complicity in the slaughter inherent in the use of wool."
As a final component to this distasteful equation, the sizeable herds of sheep bred by the wool industry eventually make the land they graze on unfit for cultivation.
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Beyond fur, leather, and wool, there are less obvious forms of animal-derived clothing. They may be less obvious, but are no less cruel. The soft under-feathering plucked out of live geese destined for slaughter is called "down." Upon reaching adulthood, geese are divided by color. Gray geese are destined to become pâté de foie gras. To produce this alleged delicacy, gray geese are force-fed 6 to 7 pounds of grain three times a day with an air-driven feeder tube for 28 days. At that point, their livers, from which the pate is made, will have bloated to 6 to 12 times their normal size. About 10 percent don't make it to slaughter. "They die when their stomachs burst," says Pamela Rice. It is the white geese that undergo the painful plucking process to supply filling for comforters, pillows, and ski parkas. "Typically, ducks and geese are lifted by their necks, their legs tied, and their feathers are ripped out, explains Carla Bennett. "The struggling birds often sustain injuries during plucking. They are then returned to their cage until they are ready to be plucked again. This process begins when the animals are 8 weeks old and is repeated at eight-week intervals until the birds are slaughtered."
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"Silk is not vegan," says Joanne Stepaniak. "It is a viscous protein substance secreted from the glands of silkworms which hardens into silk on contact with air." To grasp the cruelty of silk-the fiber silkworms weave to make cocoons-one must first recognize that worms are sensate. They demonstrate a clear physical response to pain: the production of endorphins. Next comes a rough understanding of how silk is produced. Thanks to centuries of cultivation, the most common species of the moth larvae known as the silkworm only exists on the mulberry trees owned by commercial silk producers. Silk is obtained from the cocoon of the silkworm. "In order to retain a single, unbroken filament, the silkworm is killed before it can emerge from the cocoon and break the thread," Stepaniak explains. "Slaughtering silkworms for their silk is done by boiling, baking, or steaming the live worm directly in its cocoon. When the worm is in this chrysalis stage it is not dead; it is transforming." Through selective breeding, the moths that emerge from the cocoon have lost their ability to fly. "Certain chrysalis are kept aside to allow the moths to emerge and mate," continues Stepaniak. "After the female lays her eggs, she is crushed and inspected for diseases. If she appears diseased, her eggs are immediately destroyed. After mating, the males are dumped into a basket and discarded as refuse."
When used in clothing, silk is sometimes called pure chiffon, pure georgette, organza, pure crepe, or pure satin.
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So there you are: You're attending a protest or working at a non-profit; you got there on foot, by bicycle, or by public transportation; you've packed your vegan lunch; and you're wearing animal-free clothing. You're a walking advertisement for compassionate, aware living and you've got the facts to back up your decisions. In other words, the motivating power example is in full effect and ready to challenge the corporate-dominated norms.
There's a fashion that's always in style.
Mickey Z. is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of "The Good War" and the upcoming book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists & Activists Making Ends Meet (both from Soft Skull Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.