Tuesday, May 26, 2009

alternative outfitters and the dilemma of cruelty-free fashion

by frédérik sisa

In this increasingly complicated world, even fashion isn’t isolated from a context of social, political, and economic issues. Ethical issues, if you will, that raise questions as to the extent to which being a fashionista is limited to appearances. As a (b)vegan, I struggle with how best to transform my life from that of the classic consumer to something more enlightened and environmentally-attuned. When it comes to eating, the moral struggle is easy to tame; it’s possible to lay out general principles that are based in pragmatism rather than unyielding ideology. Clothing, however, presents a more difficult problem.

Whether vegan or not, there is good reason for everyone to be concerned about animal cruelty in the manufacture of the clothes we wear. Fur, for example, can entail heart-breaking and horrifying cruelty as animals are confined in tiny cages, beaten, and skinned alive. See this link on Chinese fur farms. The same applies to leather. In India, for example, PETA’s investigations documented illegal abuse of animals, a problem that co-occurs with unsanitary and polluting practices.

So what’s a fashionista to do? One option is to shop at stores like Alternative Outfitters, which sell cruelty-free, non-leather products. I recently visited their showroom in Pasadena (California). It’s the tiny, public face of the warehouse that stores supplies for their online store. As an overall experience, I admit I was a little disappointed. Perhaps it’s my own fault for expecting a warm-and-fuzzy from an internet-oriented store, but the service, though not at all unfriendly, was a tad indifferent. This was good in the sense of not being harassed by a sales clerk while browsing, but bad in the sense that it felt impersonal. Selection-wise, it should come as no surprise that Alternative Outfitters is an Oasis for women shoppers - my wife bought a very nifty tote featuring embroidered skulls - but a desert for us guys. The footwear selection is quite impressive, with non-leather shoes from brands such as Steve Madden, Chinese Laundry, Simple, and others, and they carry a good selection of apparel, accessories and cosmetics. The online catalog seems to be better than what they shelf at their brick-and-mortar. I can’t vouch for the online experience, but I have no reason to believe that customers would be disappointed with their orders.

Yet looking at all these products, the issues surrounding cruelty-free apparel and accessories comes into focus. Made in China. Synthetic materials. The picture is larger than cruelty to animals. With products manufactured abroad, we have to consider the environmental impact arising from the manufacturing process of synthetic materials such as PVC, as well as the potential health impacts of these materials, as well as carbon-emissions that come with the international transport of products. There are also labour considerations.

The challenge, of course, comes from prioritizing these various aspects of environmental responsibility. Is it better to buy a local animal-based product, thereby sustaining animal cruelty, or a foreign-made synthetic item with all its environmental impact? Would you be willing to pay more for a natural, environmentally sustainable, fair-trade or locally made piece of clothing? Would you be willing to have less selection but have that selection be fully ethical?

To illustrate the dilemma: I’ve been contemplating getting a pair of custom sandals made. Since I can’t find sandals in the style I want, I came up with a design and found a cobbler in the US who could make it. The problem, however, is that she hasn’t been able to find a non-leather material. In the bigger picture, relatively-local and hand-made but not leather-free isn’t too bad. Yet there is the question: do I really NEED this pair of sandals? If it’s just out of a kind of vanity and not genuine necessity, is there any reason to accept any moral compromise?

I suppose the ideal would be some sort of mass customization manufacturing process, locally implemented using natural, sustainable materials. Until we have that, though, we have to keep struggling with the balance between the elements of style and the ethics of production and consumption.

2 comments:

Chris said...

Loved this article Frédérik - I wanted to let you know that the Simple selection at Vegan Chic feature shoes constructed from sustainable and recycled materials.

The men's selection can be found here:
http://www.veganchic.com/men/vegan+Simple/search.aspx

Best of luck!

Frederik Sisa said...

Thank you! Simple is a brand I really respect. When they start offering guys more than fit flops (I'm a sandals kind of fellah), or I'm in need of sneaks, I'll be all over them. I am digging this messenger bag I bought from them last year.

And I'm pleased to discover veganchic.com!

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