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This post is part one in a four-part series written by Joshua Katcher – fashion designer, educator, and author of the award-winning book Fashion Animals. In this series, Katcher examines how the fur and leather debate became a debate about plastic. 

When scientists discovered a new species of crustacean in the ocean’s deepest trench in early March, they soon realized that another part of our civilization had gotten there sooner. The researchers identified microfibers from a plastic used in single-use food and beverage containers inside the marine creature: they named the amphipod Eurythenes plasticus.

Remember the story of the whale who died from consuming over 80 plastic bags, and who vomited those plastic bags while marine vets tried to save him? Heartbreaking films like MIDWAY show the devastation that plastic is having on birds and their babies on islands even in remote areas of the sea, and many organizations have emerged specifically to address this problem. International efforts like The Plastics Pact and Plastic Leak Project aim to empower companies with commitments and scientific tools to address microfiber shedding and other plastic pollution in their value chains. WWF has even called for an aggressive, binding global agreement to halt plastic pollution. 

Plastic pollution isn’t the only threat to ocean health / Image by Isa Marino

It is worth noting that all of this attention somewhat glosses over one of the major culprits of marine pollution – the fishing industry. According to a recent Greenpeace report, over 85 percent of the rubbish on the seafloor on seamounts and ocean ridges, and in the Great Pacific Gyre, is from fishing gear. These larger bits of plastic create leviathans like ghost nets and debris that end up fatally entangling or confusing wildlife who may think it’s food. While there has been significant media focus on straws and microfibers, there seems to have been minimal effort to boycott seafood or even pressure the seafood industry to reduce their plastic pollution. 

The mainstream sustainable fashion conversation has recently been dominated by worries of plastic microfibers from polyester and their impacts on aquatic life – and for good reason; every year 342 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic-based fibers for textiles. In 2016, those barrels of oil became 52 million metric tons of polyester fiber. That’s the weight of 150 Empire State Buildings! Organizations like Common Objective remind us that “between half million and a million tons of plastic microfibers are discharged into wastewater each year from the washing of synthetic clothes.” 

Simultaneously, but with significantly less attention, the ocean is under assault from animal farming. In 2019, a 7000 square-mile area larger than the state of Connecticut was declared a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly due to runoff from factory farming. According to Mission Blue, “industrial animal agriculture is seriously impacting our waterways and ocean yet few people know it.” From outbreaks of deadly marine animal diseases, coral bleaching, and massive waste spills to toxic algae blooms, sea temperature rise, and ocean acidification, the marine devastation of animal farming is undeniable. To make matters worse, livestock and their feed production consume almost one-third of all freshwater in the world today and are responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is to blame as the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction, and water pollution. University of Oxford researchers even reported that the single biggest way each person can reduce our impact on the planet is to choose a vegan diet. But what about our wardrobes?

 While leather is often considered to be “just a byproduct,” it cannot be divorced from its source – industrial animal agriculture. The environmental issues of leather won’t be mitigated if we simply find better tanning methods, as this ignores all the ecological destruction that’s happening upstream. Also, concerns about the violent abuse of animals and the inherent cruelties of animal farming and trapping seem to have been pushed aside to focus on what is popularly perceived as “more important” concerns. How is the mainstream sustainable fashion community avoiding topics like live export in the wool industry, a life of confinement for wild animals on fur farms, and systems of impregnating and separating mother animals from their babies upstream of killing and tanning calves and lambs for leather? These are part of the fiber story, but not parts we like to acknowledge, let alone openly discuss. 

Both of these issues require big solutions. But how did plastic become the primary focus of the debate around replacing fur and leather when the data we have shows that plastic is not the single worst material for the environment? And how did concerns for torturing and killing animals get deemed sentimental and misguided or left out of the mainstream sustainable fashion conversation almost entirely? 

Stay tuned as we continue to explore this issue!

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