Is Fashion Really ‘Vegan’ If It Includes Human Exploitation?


8 Minutes Read

Humans are also exploited in the fashion industry - here a man cuts fabric (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission) - Media Credit:

It’s Fashion Revolution Week at the moment, a time to ask ‘who made my clothes’ and consider the many people and lives that are affected in the production of a single garment of clothing.

Fashion Revolution Week marks the date of what is considered to be the deadliest garment factory accident in history, the collapse of Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh.

Exploited for fashion

The collapse killed 1,134 people and injured over 2,000 more. These people were garment-makers, and they were mostly women, as 80 percent of garment-makers are.

Workers had voiced concerns about the safety of continuing work in the plaza, as it was visibly cracking. Their fears were ignored, and they were forced to continuing making garments, to meet the ever-growing demand of a fast fashion market. Brands such as Walmart, Zara, Mango and Benetton were producing in factories located in Rana Plaza at the time.

Vegan fashion

When we talk about vegan fashion, we mostly talk about animals. This is absolutely critical, as there is no right way to kill, exploit or use someone, or see them as something, for the sake of fashion. However, the importance of vegan fashion rings true still, when we talk about the people involved in the making of animal-based clothes.

Most often talked about in this intersection between veganism and human welfare in the fashion sector, is the tanning process in the leather industry. The formaldehyde, arsenic, chromium and other toxic chemicals (many of which are carcinogens) involved in the tanning process are incredibly harmful to workers.

Exposure to these chemicals have been seen to cause many health problems including problems with sight, the kidneys, the liver, as well as the respiratory and lymphatic systems of the people working in tanneries.

People living around tanneries, like many people living along the river Ganges, are also put in harm’s way due to heavy water pollution from these tanneries. This is a serious issue, however, I’d like to address an issue perhaps more complex, and less understood or spoken about fashion based conversations. This is the issue of the direct correlation between animal slaughtering and the health and wellbeing of those employed to slaughter on behalf of those buying and wearing animal products.

Slaughter industries

This issue, is one that is relevant to down, to wool, to leather and to fur – because all of these industries in the end are slaughter industries. All animals in these industries (yes, even sheep farmed for wool) are eventually slaughtered. For humans to wear animal products animals must be slaughtered – it’s that simple. We humans like to think of ourselves as having good hearts, as being kind.

We even created the word ‘humane’ to describe how good we are, or specifically, how able we are to ‘have or show compassion or benevolence’. It’s very easy to follow from all this, that it is not naturally comfortable, to say the least, for a person to spend their day and make their living, by killing. But that’s what slaughterhouse workers do, day in and day out. So what are the impacts of this?

Risks for humans

JBS Australia, which runs multiple slaughterhouses, states on its website that across 10 ‘processing facilities’, they are able to kill more than 8,000 cattle per day, and 21,000 small stock (in this case, sheep).

Spread evenly, that’s 2,900 animals killed in each facility, daily. In one working day, say the standard 9-5 (though this job is often one of unusual hours, and more of them), that’s around 362 animals slaughtered every hour. 6 animals a minute. After slaughter these animals then quickly have to be moved along the processing line, being skinned and cut up with sharp knives.

Aside from the obvious cruelty of killing so many animals so quickly, there are many risks involved in this kind of knife-wielding work, for the people doing the slicing, skinning, slitting and cutting.

Dangerous work

In the US, a paper that looked into the dangers of high-speed slaughtering and processing found that ‘almost 25 percent of all ‘meatpacking’ employees are injured or ill, and the high speed of production lines has increased the industry’s already abundant amount of injuries.’ ?

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stated that this industry was at the “top end of [their] concern level’ in terms of injury rates. HSE figures covering a six-year period found 800 workers suffering serious injuries – an average of more than two per week. In the same period, 78 workers suffered the amputation of fingers, parts of fingers or limbs as a result of workplace incidents.

On top of the physical dangers that come with working in a facility set up for killing, there are enormous amounts of mental health risks that come with killing for a living. Bill Haw, the CEO of Kansas City’s National Farms, which operates one of the largest cattle feedlot operations in the US, once stated: “Well, the slaughterhouse is not a pretty thing… It’s a highly efficient process. But it’s not now, nor never will be, a very pretty thing. Animals come there to die, to be eviscerated, to be decapitated, to be de-hided – and all of those are violent, bloody and difficult things to watch. So your first and foremost impression of at least the initial stages of the packing house are a very violent, very dehumanizing sort of thing.’

Mental health risks

The mental health risks that come with being exposed to and involved in such violence, and more importantly, having violence become a normal part of ones working life, are massive.

In the US, studies have shown that slaughterhouse workers experienced a higher prevalence of serious psychological distress compared to United States population-wide estimates. Slaughterhouse work has also been found to be linked to perpetration-induced traumatic stress, higher levels of aggression, and a myriad of other concerns.

This is a job people choose out of necessity, so many marginalized, underprivileged and economically disadvantaged groups end up in this minimum-wage work force. In the US, 38 percent of slaughterhouse workers are migrants. According to The Guardian, 69 percent of the British slaughterhouse workforce is made up of EU migrants. In Australia, a large amount of slaughterhouse workers have not completed education beyond Year 10/11 (the 2 years prior to the final year of high school). Due to their more vulnerable circumstances, these people are working in jobs likely to physically and mentally harm them, and this damage continues to ripple outward of them too.

Many fashionable materials require the slaughter of animals

Outside slaughterhouses

The high human price of animal-based fashion continues to show itself in the communities surrounding slaughterhouses, which are generally of a lower socioeconomic status. It has been found that incidents of violent offences, sexual assault and rape can be disproportionately higher in areas with more slaughterhouse workers.

Evidence suggests too, that there may be higher rates of familial violence, as well as other crimes and social problems among slaughterhouse worker populations, and those they interact with, when they come home from a day of slaughtering animals.

From The Yale Global Health Review: “[it is] theorized that the reason for this increase [in crime] was “spillover’ in the psyches of the slaughterhouse workers, an explanation that is backed up by sociological theory and anecdotal evidence. This is seen in one worker’s testimony about how working a long shift slaughtering livestock affected how he viewed and treated his coworkers: ‘I’ve had ideas of hanging my foreman upside down on the line and sticking him. I remember going into the office and telling the personnel man I have no problem pulling the trigger on a person – if you get in my face I’ll blow you away’.”

In another PBN article, an ex-slaughterhouse worker stated: “I had suicidal thoughts from the guilt. I still dream about it now, and I can’t look at dead animals packaged up in the supermarket.’ It seems this job is one that either traumatizes a person, or numbs them to violence.

The cost of fashion

It is clear that the human consequences of animal exploitation in fashion are steep, even when focussing on the single, complex issues within slaughterhouse work. This is only one part of the supply chain between a farmed animal, and a jacket or sweater in a store. There are other problematic processes in between these stages, a particularly harmful one being tanning in the leather process, as mentioned.

Violence is violence and a disrespect for the wellbeing and life of others is a dangerous thing to allow into our communities. When we choose to wear animals we create a need for an industry that preys on vulnerability. Vulnerable animals are killed, by vulnerable groups of people, who in turn, harm other vulnerable people, in their homes and communities.

So, next time you, or someone you know goes to try on leather boots, a wool knit, a down filled jacket or a fur key chain for a bag, think not only of the animal suffering, but the human suffering that purchase endorses and supports. Think about who made your clothes, or more accurately, who killed them.


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