How veganism is taking the step from kitchen to closet

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Doctor Martens' vegan boots
Image copyrightDOCTOR MARTENS
Dr Martens’ vegan boots represent 4% of all pairs sold

Remember when synthetic leather was the fall-back option, if you couldn’t afford the real thing?

Not any more.

It has just become a selling point: clothes and accessories marketed as free from cow skin and any other animal products, are being launched by retailers up and down the High Street, including Marks & Spencer, Zara and New Look.

There are fur coats, that are “vegan”, jute and plastic “vegan” belts, and shoes made from tree bark, natural rubber and coconut fibre, labelled “vegan”.

While an increasing number of Brits are trying to eat less meat, market researchers Mintel found in their latest fashion and sustainability report that the trend is now spreading from kitchen to closet. It found animal welfare came top of a list of issues that people said they considered before buying clothes, with 42% saying it was important to them.

Mintel predicted 2019 would see a boom in animal-free shoe collections with shoppers of all ages saying they would buy footwear labelled “vegan”.

“It seems to be a bit of a buzz word,” says Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester.

Stella McCartneyImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Designer Stella McCartney is seen as a pioneer of animal-friendly fashion

As well as being on trend – and with a much better ring to it than “synthetic leather” – the “vegan” label does convey an important extra distinction, Ms Perry points out.

“If you are labelling it as vegan, the whole product needs to be vegan,” she says. That means checking things like the glue that holds the shoe together for example and the chemicals used for finishing them.

At the top end, designers like Stella McCartney – described by Ms Perry as the original pioneer in this area – have shunned leather and fur for some time. Her fashion house is now exploring a leather substitute made from fungi, and looking at replacing silk with yeast proteins.

But it is at the more accessible end of the market where the trend is really taking off, with some big brands already converting demand for vegan fashion into sales.

Dr Martens – purveyors of high-top leather boots – has experienced a 300% rise in sales of the vegan version of its stompers over the past year.

Launched right back in 2011, the vegan DMs are made from a combination of polyester fabric and polyurethane. After last year’s rapid growth, vegan boots represented 4% of all pairs sold.

Chart showing the number of vegetarians and vegans in Great Britain in 2016.

The Vegan Society says they’ve seen a boom in products registered with the vegan trademark: in 2018 there were 119. So far this year it says 1,956 have been registered.

“New products are being added daily, and many new brands are currently in the process of submitting products for review – including some very well-known High Street brands,” says the Vegan society’s Dominika Piasecka.

These new products aren’t for the most part, though, coming at an extra to cost to consumers.

Vegan Doc Martens cost the same as the leather originals. New Look, one of the first High Street chains to use the vegan trademark prices ballet “flats” at £7.99 and a vegan laptop handbag at £29.99, comparable with its other products.

This marks a change, points out retail analyst Kate Hardcastle. In the past ethical products, whether that was fair trade or organic came at a premium.

On the other hand, once upon a time that “leather-look” handbag would have cost half the price of the real thing. So should these products cost less?

Charging similar prices to general ranges is justifiable, argues Ms Hardcastle, since the cost of materials is a small part of the overall cost and the cost of production isn’t likely to be significantly lower for vegan products.

She does strike a note of caution though, over just how ethical these new ranges are overall.

The debate over durability, production techniques, crop-growing impacts, pollution, biodegradability and recyclability is a complicated one, not to mention the ethics around the working conditions for people making the products, whatever the component materials.

Environmental campaigners are adamant that the best approach to is to buy less, never mind what the item is made of.

Some companies are “dressing up” items using the vegan tag, warns Ms Hardcastle, to make products appear “far more environmentally [and] ethically friendly than the product actually is”.

Consumers should not be “lulled into a false sense of security” that just because something isn’t an animal hide it is suddenly therefore environmentally friendly, she warns. “That isn’t the case.”

Tacko Fall
‘Personally, I love my height! It’s tough to find clothes or shoes though,’ says Fall, who wears a UK size 21.5 shoe

Tacko Fall only stepped on to a basketball court seven years ago – but the imposing 7ft 5in Senegalese is now hoping to become the tallest active player in the NBA.

Two and a half inches shorter than retired Romanian player Gheorghe Mureșan – the NBA’s tallest ever player – 23-year-old Fall is battling to make the Boston Celtics’ 15-man roster for the upcoming season after signing for the franchise in the summer.

The Celtics decided to move for Fall after he recorded the highest marks ever for wingspan (8ft 2.25in), standing reach (10ft 2.5in) and height with shoes (7ft 7in) at the NBA Draft Combine earlier this year.

Born in Dakar in 1995, Fall moved to the United States aged 16 – when he already stood at 7ft tall – and went on to play college basketball for the University of Central Florida.

His final game for the UCF Knights came against the Duke Blue Devils in a NCAA Tournament second-round clash, where he held his own against Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans star who was first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

“It’s a dream come true. I started basketball when I was 16, a bit late,” the centre told BBC Sport Africa’s Babacar Diarra.

“When I went to the US, I had many opportunities there. Many people helped me continue developing especially at the University of Central Florida.”

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Fall admits he “wasn’t really aware of what basketball was” growing up, devoting his time instead to watching cartoons, but revealed that it was his grandma’s love for the sport that brought it to his attention.

It soon became his focus after he arrived in America as a teenager, although his entrance into the sport was not without its challenges.

“I didn’t know how to play. I had many things to learn. I was lucky, many people helped me, developed me,” he says.

Tacko Fall
Fall aims to make his professional debut when the NBA season begins at the end of October

“I was in Houston for a year. Then I kind of made the rounds: I went to Tennessee, Georgia, then to Florida. I stayed there for two years in high school and then I went to UCF.

“I worked so much to get this opportunity to play in the NBA. So right now, I am dreaming.

“Now, basketball is my life. If I don’t play for one day, it drives me crazy.

“I feel blessed. I am just a little kid from Senegal, I barely started playing basketball six years ago. God truly blessed me.”

Helen Whately (right)
Image copyrightPARLIAMENT TV
Image captionHelen Whately (right) used the 10 Minute Rule to bring her bill to Parliament

Flexible working should be the default position for all employees, rather than it being up to individuals to request.

That is the call from Conservative MP Helen Whately, who introduced a flexible working bill in Parliament on Tuesday.

It would help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare, and help businesses keep staff, she said.

Anna Whitehouse, founder of the campaign Flex Appeal, said it was “a huge moment”.

Ms Whately’s Ten Minute Rule Bill was given approval to go to a second reading on Wednesday.

‘Entrenched assumptions’

Introducing her bill, she argued that unless employers had a sound business reason for having specific working hours, firms should introduce flexibility to every job.

“The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives,” she said.

“At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility.

“This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.

“As a result, men don’t get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make – if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.”

Ms Whitehouse, known on social media as Mother Pukka, founded the Flex Appeal campaign after her own flexible working request was refused by her employer.

She told the BBC: “Today was a huge moment after campaigning on the streets for five years now. Now it feels like people are finally listening.”

The mother-of-two, now an author and blogger, said she wanted to “open employers’ eyes that there are humans driving their business”, and retaining staff would be far easier if people were better able to balance their work and family lives.

Ella Smillie, from the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, said: “We urge MPs to give Helen Whately’s bill the support it deserves.

“Ensuring that employers offer flexible working would open up new jobs to a whole raft of people who want to work, alongside carrying out caring responsibilities or simply achieving a better work-life balance.

“There are also clear benefits to employers – offering flexible working to employees creates a stronger, loyal and more diverse workforce, which pays dividends.”

Presentational grey line

Types of flexible working

  • Job-sharing
  • Working from home
  • Part-time
  • Compressed hours
  • Flexitime
  • Annualised hours
  • Staggered hours
  • Phased retirement

Source: gov.co.uk website

Presentational grey line

Ms Whately gave an example of a male lawyer who asked his employer if he could work flexibly one day a week, only to be asked what his wife was doing.

“All these conversations start with a presumption against flexibility,” the MP said. “I ask what if we flip the question and ask whether a job can’t be done flexibly.

“How many more employers would find that actually it didn’t make a difference where or when a piece of work was done, as long as it was done?”

MPs often use Ten Minute Rule bills to gain publicity and support for an issue they care about – they are unlikely to become law unless they get government backing.