Can Vegan Fashion Go Cheap ... But Avoid the Way of the Sweatshop?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s getting easier to find plant-based everything, everywhere.
By Justin Higginbottom
Working as an accountant in London, Devika Srimal Bapna had a dilemma. She was interested in animal rights and the environment, had become a vegan and even volunteered for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). But she needed shoes. “I really struggled to find non-leather shoes that were fashionable and affordable and ethical,” says Bapna. That was when she realized there was a gap in the market. In 2015, she started the vegan shoe company Kanabis — which makes use of hemp canvas, hence the name — in New Delhi. She chose to produce in India, where she figured there was more opportunity for growth. It’s also cheaper to produce the same quality products in India while staying ethical.
Bapna’s hardly alone. Kanabis is among a growing number of emerging startups around the world that are producing vegan fashion outside of traditional ethical clothing hubs in the U.S. and Europe, as veganism quickly expands as a global trend. These firms in Asia, Africa and Latin America are manufacturing products initially with a local audience in mind. But their lower costs also give them the potential to reshape the vegan fashion industry back in the West, where high prices serve as a deterrent for many consumers — much as has happened with traditional fashion following the emergence of cheaper manufacturing hubs in Bangladesh, China and Southeast Asia.
Malaysian designer Nicole Wang and her Taiwanese-Canadian peer Jason Wu tied up last May with Singapore-headquartered retail chain Zalora to launch vegan leather tote bags. XXLab, an all-women collective in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is using tofu production waste and turning it into soy leather. The group launched in 2015, as did Piñatex, created by Ananas Anam in the Philippines. Piñatex uses textile fiber made from pineapple leaves. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, the boutique clothing store Samatoa is reviving the ancient practice of weaving lotus flowers into a soft, yet waterproof, fabric. The Brazilian vegan shoe company Ahimsa features faux leather shoes that one would be hard-pressed to pick from a lineup of real leather. And in South Africa, Cape Town-based Charlotte Rhys is producing fully vegan body products.
You can love it or hate it but you can’t ignore it [plant-based clothing] today.
Devika Srimal Bapna, founder of Kanabis
Many of these products are costly for their local markets in developing nations. But in a Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility in 2015, 55 percent of online consumers across 60 countries said they were willing to pay more for a product dedicated to having a positive social and environmental impact.
And compared to the cost of similar products in the West, what these startups in Asia, Africa and Latin America are producing is at least a third cheaper. A pair of vegan flat lace-up shoes cost $40 at Kanabis and $80 at Ahimsa, but cost $149 at Italian brand Bhava, for instance. These new startups aren’t limiting themselves to their home nations; they’re looking at newer, developed markets that could soon embrace more affordable, vegan fashion products just as Bapna had wanted in London. Kanabis, she says, will be exporting from India to Australia and New Zealand soon, and Bapna visited Germany in February for a trade show.
“You can love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it today,” says Bapna about plant-based clothing.
The globalization of vegan fashion — and the prospects of affordability it brings — coincides with an overall expansion of the market for vegan products everywhere. According to market research firm GlobalData, 6 percent of Americans identified as vegans in 2017 compared with only 1 percent in 2014. China’s vegan market alone is predicted to grow more than 17 percent from 2015 to 2020, according to Euromonitor International. And the global faux leather market is set to hit $85 billion by 2025 from $25.61 billion in 2017, according to a report by Grand View Research.
In the West, vegan clothing has received its share of star endorsements in recent years: Miley Cyrus, Anne Hathaway, Emma Watson and Serena Williams have all promoted cruelty-free fashion. Meanwhile, big brands like Birkenstock, Adidas and Gucci have released vegan product lines. Luxury designers like Stella McCartney have designed vegan leather runway collections. The world’s three largest clothing retailers — Gap, Inditex and H&M — went fur-free in 2016.
Dominika Piasecka of the U.K.’s Vegan Society, the world’s oldest vegan organization, has noticed a major shift in quality and range of vegan fashion from around the world in just the last six years since she became vegan. In December, the supermarket Marks & Spencer in the U.K. launched a vegan line including men’s and women’s clothing. A lot of brands that were previously “accidentally vegan” — meaning they weren’t produced with vegans in mind — are now capitalizing on the trend, she says. Piasecka hopes it all leads to more education about veganism.
But this fashion trend is now growing in parallel in Asia and Latin America too – and not with a lag after the West, as is often the case. In India, Kanabis has other vegan fashion peers, including Achilles’ Heel, a shoe brand, and Aulive and Arture, both accessories brands. In 2017, Bollywood stars and designers worked with PETA on a vegan fashion campaign, giving it the kind of visibility western stars have given the trend elsewhere.
Challenges remain. The market for vegan fashion is still “niche” in India, Bapna says. Rafael Julião of Ahimsa in Brazil, says the struggle is in expanding vegan fashion to those who don’t traditionally identify as vegan. “Our biggest challenge is … to prove to ‘non-believers’ we have a superior product, one that is not cruel and in fact better for the environment,” says Julião. One of the ways Bapna does that, she says, is by making her production process as transparent as possible, including publicizing the manufacturing and labor conditions. In the future, blockchain technology could help with this too: soon, a vegan clothing item’s tag could be scanned to reveal the supply chain behind the product.
The market for vegan products usually also overlaps with that for sustainability and fair trade (humans are animals too after all). “Raising animals for clothing and food takes a devastating toll on our planet,” says Jason Baker, PETA’s vice president of international campaigns. The U.N. has reported that animal agriculture is a leading cause of carbon emissions. And leather tanning requires 130 different chemicals including cyanide — though fake leather and other synthetic material too are often made from petroleum-based plastics. As the demand for mass-produced vegan fashion grows further though, the competition to bring prices down could expose designers and manufacturers to the same pressures of using sweatshops that fast fashion has faced.
Still, within the fashion industry, the excitement for this shift is palpable. On Feb. 1, amid dinosaur bones and taxidermy specimens at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, designers and fashionistas rubbed elbows down the hall from the Age of Mammals exhibition. A week of runway shows and workshops followed during the inaugural Vegan Fashion Week. The event was billed as the world’s first of its kind. It won’t be the last. And if Bapna, Julião and their peers have their way, don’t be surprised if subsequent editions are in Asia or Latin America — and offering vegan fashion alternatives that are much more affordable than the ones on show in Los Angeles.
- Justin Higginbottom, OZY AuthorContact Justin Higginbottom