Are you a true vegan if you wear silk dresses or carry leather handbags? Stella McCartney would say no, but for most of us, giving up wearable animal products is a lot more difficult than switching to oat milk and tofu. Now, a slew of vegan brands have come to the fore – but how good is their merchandise for the environment, and are they truly free of animal products? Unlike food, where the parameters are clear, vegan fashion is a hotly debated topic. Some vegan fashion lovers argue that vintage leather is acceptable, but not vintage fur. McCartney, however, never uses leather or fur in her designs – vintage or otherwise – although she will use responsibly sourced wool as she believes the quality is better than alternatives. Equally, to be truly vegan, businesses have to look at all the materials used to make an item of clothing, including the glues, dyes and waxes. The checks and processes required to do this are complicated and many in the fashion industry argue that one centralised body is needed to create clear parameters. Clarity is required particularly because vegan fashion is something of a growing movement. Fashion search platform Lyst highlighted in its 2020 Conscious Fashion Report that searches for “vegan leather” had increased 69 per cent year-on-year. Retail research platform Edited, meanwhile, suggested in February 2021 that the Covid-19 pandemic could be behind increased interest in vegan items. “[Fashion] is one of the most harmful industries in the world,” McCartney told the South China Morning Post . “It’s completely unregulated and we have no way of measuring our impact – we’re in a pretty dire situation, but what’s making it better is that this is very fashionable conversation to be having, and like every other industry, the fashion industry realises that if you want to be relevant and you want to have a customer, you need to appeal to Gens X, Y and Z.” But not all is clear in this new world of vegan fashion. Here are some common questions answered. If a product is vegan, does it mean it is sustainable? No, it simply means that the product contains no animal-derived materials or ingredients. Vegan-labelled items should be providing an alternative to something that is traditionally made with animal products – but it doesn’t mean it is environmentally friendly. Are there climate consequences to buying vegan fashion? People committed to shopping thoughtfully can face tough decisions. By taking leather, silk and wool out of their wardrobes, they may be damaging the environment in other ways. This is because many vegan labels have to swap animal products for materials with a plastic base. For anyone trying to shop ethically in all ways, looking at supply chains and the make-up of fabrics is essential. What new materials are being used to replace leather? While synthetic leather is usually made from one of two plastic polymers – polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both of which aren’t great for the environment – alternatives are appearing. For example, in March 2021, McCartney introduced her first line of garments made from Mylo, a mushroom-based vegan leather grown from the natural fibre mycelium (the root structure of fungi), invented by MycoWorks, a California-based biotech company. The material looks, feels and even smells remarkably like leather. Fascinatingly, vegan leather can also be made from pineapple skins, cork and apple skins. Vegan leather has become increasingly fashionable , particularly when in the hands of brands such as Nanushka. Designers like Rejina Pyo now use vegan leather for skirts, trousers and jackets, but still opt for real leather when it comes to accessories as it tends to wear better – and because customers tend to attach a higher value to it. Footwear brands pioneering the use of environmentally friendly alternatives include Veja – favoured by the likes of Meghan Markle – which upcycles corn for the alternative leather in many of its sneakers; for heels there is Piferi, founded by former Jimmy Choo designer Alfredo Piferi, and Los Angeles-based Taylor + Thomas; while Spanish brand Mireia Playà, which uses recycled polyester, and London-based Dear Frances are the go-tos for vegan boots. What about silk? For a material so readily associated with beauty and glamour, the silk supply chain is surprisingly ugly. Silkworms are typically boiled alive in their cocoons and silk-producing regions in India reportedly rely on child labour to extract the threads. Happily, there are a growing number of plant-based materials that mimic the feel and drape of silk. One is Bolt Threads. By studying spider silk, the California-based brand was able to understand the relationship between the arachnids’ DNA and the characteristics of the fibres they make. The company replicates these processes at scale to create a vegan silk that looks and – more importantly – feels like silk and works with many major designer brands. Price-wise, Bolt Threads is similar to the real thing. And wool? This is more complicated. McCartney chooses to use wool because she believes it is greener than the plastic-based alternatives. Dana Thomas , the author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes , thinks the same. “Wool is one of the best things you can wear for the environment because when it wears out you can compost it safely – and in my book, that’s important,” she says. The vegan community, however, is adamant that any material that exploits an animal is problematic – but until the world creates a wool-like substance that’s not largely derived from plastic, we are unlikely to stop using it any time soon. What about faux fur? Fur became unacceptable a while ago, while some also frown on faux fur as it is typically made from fossil-fuel-based synthetics. However, plenty of new brands including Maison Atia and House of Fluff, as well as Stella McCartney with the brand’s recently developed Koba Fur-Free Fur, are making faux fur from a mix of recycled polyester and plant products. Doing it for themselves: pair launch vegan K-fashion brand Is this the future? Almost certainly. “One thing I know is that Gen Z is becoming as determined to wear vegan clothes as they are to eat vegan food,” says MarieLeigh Bliss, from marketing firm YPulse.