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What Exactly Is ‘Vegan’ Fashion? British Retail Consortium Weighs In

As consumers continue to clamor for cruelty-free fashion, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has laid down a series of voluntary guidelines to ensure so-called “vegan” products contain no animal-derived materials.

Neither should “vegan” and “sustainable” be used interchangeably, according to the trade organization, whose 5,000 members represent 70 percent of the United Kingdom’s retail industry.

“‘Vegan’ relates to the absence of animal-derived materials, whereas ‘sustainable’ will mean different things depending on the issue analyzed (including embedded water, carbon footprint, and more),” the guidelines noted.

Retailers, in other words, should not conflate veganism in clothing with environmental virtue, because cruelty-free alternatives to animal hides and fibers often consist of non-biodegradable petroleum products such as polyurethane or polyester.

Not everything free from animals should receive the “vegan” designation, either, the BRC said. Vegan products should offer consumers “an alternative” to products traditionally made with animal-derived materials or ingredients like leather, fur, wool or silk. Anything that falls outside the category is “not in scope.”

“This means a cotton T-shirt should not be labelled as ‘vegan’ as it is traditionally made from cotton,” it said.

Veganism is a ballooning trend, and even people who don’t identify as vegan may seek out vegan products for various personal reasons, the BRC acknowledged in its report. Because of this—and the fact the number of vegans in the United Kingdom has doubled between 2015 and 2019—vegan apparel and footwear are “well placed to launch.”

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Indeed, high-street brands and retailers have no intention of letting the bandwagon slip away from them. In August, New Look launched a line of vegan shoes and accessories in partnership with the Vegan Society. A few months before, Canadian retailer Call It Spring trumpeted it was transitioning to all-vegan shoes 100 percent of the time. Topshop, too, has dipped into 100 percent vegan shoes, as has Marks & Spencer, which celebrated Veganuary last January with 350 styles of vegan footwear.

Creating vegan fashion isn’t simply a matter of avoiding the obvious materials, however. The BRC warns that every last component of the product has to be animal-free, including glues, colorings, dyes and waxes. Some pitfalls are more discernible than others: Waxes are typically made by bees or secreted from the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals. Gelatin, which is sometimes used to thicken adhesives, is made from animal bones; urea, derived from animal urine, can be used to dissolve dyes.

According to retail-decision platform Edited, footwear is the most-stocked category described as “vegan” following beauty. Vegan shoes, it noted in July, account for 67 percent of the total footwear assortment in the United Kingdom and 58 percent in the United States.