Opinion: the complexity of eco-fashion or, there is no free lunch

Today, a fantastic piece was shared on Facebook by various friends that I found myself furiously agreeing with, nodding all the way through. Written by freelance journalist Alden Wicker, it was already published in November 2017 on Craftsmanship Quarterly, but only now made its way into my circles. Her piece, provocatively titled “Eco-fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion“, perfectly summarises why I always feel a certain unease and skepticism towards veganism, the organic agriculture movement etc., and can’t wholeheartedly support organisations like PETA or Greenpeace.

If there is something ecology has taught us it is that the real world is complicated and messy. Although I applaud the efforts of aforementioned organisations to fight for a better world, I often feel they get the wrong end of the stick in the process. Point in case here is eco-fashion. As Wicker points out in her article, the materials that have been developed as alternatives to conventional fabrics and textiles so as to be more “eco-friendly” or “cruelty-free” have their own environmental costs and drawbacks.  Simply put: there is no free lunch.

One of the things in Wicker’s article that really struck me was PETA’s opposition to wool full stop. PETA says that since there is no humane wool, we should therefore not use it.

Wait, what?

PETA, I have news for you: there is no humane anything.

All these cruelty-free, ethical or sustainable alternatives are great initiatives, and on that level I support them. But we must not forget that no matter how we produce the goods we need and want, there will be an environmental cost somewhere. If not directly, then indirectly (and since we are so numerous nowadays, these costs will always be large, which is the real root of these problems).

What PETA fails to appreciate, and what is often overlooked in these discussions is that we are part of the web of life, not outside of it (sorry, did I just sound holistic? I do beg your pardon). Whatever means we choose to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves etc. we do so at a cost to something. It has been ever thus. Even our distant ancestors had to chop down trees and kill animals in order to survive. Am I stating the obvious? How about this:

Nature abhors a vacuum.

As soon as a niche opens up somewhere in an ecosystem (say, when a tree is felled in a forest), life comes rushing back in to take advantage of the space that has become available. The flip-side of every past mass extinction has been a riotous explosion of new life-forms. Life has evolved to be that way.

My point is that for every piece of clothing we make, for every meal we eat, for every human being we put on this planet, by definition we can only do so by taking space and resources away from the natural world that would have otherwise been used and consumed by other life forms. I have always felt amused by the Church of Euthanasia‘s slogan “Save the planet, kill yourself”. Gallows humour? Quite. But you get the point in this context.

Does this let us off the hook? No, I think we do have a moral responsiblity to minimize our impact in the process. But as Wicker points out, what PETA and the like do is hoodwink us with their simplistic storytelling. It’s high time we move beyond this and start asking the hard follow-up questions when we think about the use of natural resources. Thank you, Alden, for this excellent piece, this conversation is long overdue.

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