When we talk about sustainability in fashion, materials take centre stage. After all, what our clothes are made of can make or break their eco-credentials. While we're busy exploring innovative and sustainable materials, the question arises: will harmful and unethical materials ever disappear from the market? Will we ever be living in a climate-conscious and animal-friendly fashion world? It might sound utopian but it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. A glimpse into the past reveals that there are plenty of banned fashion materials that used to be legal and that are now either banished, restricted, or outlawed for ethical or environmental reasons. So it’s likely to happen again, right? We, at SANVT, are here to unveil five illegal materials in fashion that were once considered perfectly legit, and perhaps shed a glimmer of hope that we're moving in the right direction.
Whether you're talking about sociology, politics, or the fashion industry, looking back into the past can be pretty hair-raising when you compare bygone norms to today's standards. From today's vantage point, much of the fashion practices of yesteryear appear downright grotesque. But that's probably how our norms will be scrutinized by more enlightened generations in the future. What's commonplace today may well be judged by those to come. At least we hope so, because we’re still far from living in a perfect world. We believe that a look into the past can teach us valuable lessons about our present and future. As we introduce you to five banned fashion materials that used to be legal, we invite you to question current materials and manufacturing processes, and not take today's “normal” as the way things should be. And with any luck, materials like polyester, fur, leather, and other unethical, environmentally harming materials, along with hazardous and unfair labour conditions in the fashion industry, will soon become relics of the past.
If you're interested in the future of sustainable materials and innovative fabrics, you can explore it here.
5 Banned Fashion Materials That Used to Be Legal At a Glance:
- Exotic Animal Skins
- Radioactive Materials
1. Exotic Animal Skins
While leather is still considered a symbol of quality – despite the animal cruelty and environmentally and health-damaging dyeing processes – many types of leather have already been banished from the fashion world. The use of exotic animal skins, such as snakes, crocodiles, and other endangered species, is now subject to strict regulations and restrictions to protect these creatures. However, illegal trade in exotic skins sadly persists. And though endangered species certainly deserve more protection, it doesn't justify the cruelty inflicted on other non-endangered animals! Cruelty is cruelty. We believe a cow is no less sentient and valuable than a dog or an endangered crocodile. So, let us reconsider our stance on speciesism and put an end to the moral discrimination of sentient beings solely based on their species. Fortunately, there are now numerous plant-based, eco-friendly, high-quality leather alternatives that can hopefully replace traditional leather soon.
By the way, you can read about how mushrooms are already revolutionizing the fashion world with vegan leather alternatives here.
Moving from leather to fur. While fur coats were once seen as the ultimate status symbol just a few decades ago, they are now widely criticized. No one dares to strut down the street in their fur coat anymore, and that's a good thing. After numerous scandals and heart-wrenching videos of the brutal skinning of wild animals, including wolves, foxes, dogs, ferrets and rabbits, more and more fashion brands and corporations are banning fur from their collections. For example, Canada Goose, notorious for skinning coyotes to make their infamous fur-lined hoods, completely banned fur from their production in 2022. Alongside Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, and Giorgio Armani, more luxury brands like Versace, Michael Kors, and Gucci are joining the movement to eliminate fur from their collections.
One fur that was touted as "innocent wool" but caused a major uproar, is Angora. After PETA released videos in 2015 of Chinese Angora farms where rabbits were brutally stretched and pinned down on tables to have their skin, including flesh, torn off, Inditex – one of the world's largest fast-fashion conglomerates – banned Angora wool from its offerings. Now, around 500 globally recognized brands have outlawed Angora, including & Other Stories, Adidas, S. Oliver, Scotch & Soda, AllSaints, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, Lacoste, PUMA, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, and many more. So don’t be like Cruella de Vil! Join the movement and boycott Angora, fur, and pelts to contribute to a more mindful, eco-conscious, and animal-friendly world.
Ivory from elephants, rhinoceroses, walruses, and other endangered species was once widely used in the fashion industry for accessories like jewellery, buttons, and decorative elements. Ivory was regarded as "white gold" for a long time, given the extremely perilous nature of hunting the mighty elephant until the 19th century, not to mention the long journey ivory had to undertake to reach Europe. In the Middle Ages, ivory was even considered as one of the noblest materials around. Modern weapons in the 19th century escalated the hunt for this valuable ivory, leading to the annual importation of up to 800 tons of ivory to Europe, equivalent to 800,000 slaughtered animals.
With the increasing demand, the cruel decimation of elephants in Asia and Africa began. Today, both the Asian and African elephants are endangered. On October 17, 1989, 177 countries signed a global ban on ivory trade at the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The EU implemented the Washington Agreement within its borders through regulations on March 3, 1997.
Estimates suggest that up to 20,000 African elephants are still poached each year for their tusks. In many Asian countries, carvings, pendants, and amulets made from ivory are still considered luxury items and coveted status symbols. Therefore even stricter restrictions are continuously put in place. As you see, the use of ivory is increasingly being banned in fashion and other industries. What's more, we hope that elephant poaching will come to an end before it leads to the complete extinction of their species.
Another illegal material that was once legal and later banned for conservation reasons is whalebone. In the 19th century, whalebone or baleen was used in corsets, hoop skirts, and bodices to give them structure. As if corsets weren't bizarre enough on their own. With the decline of whaling and increased efforts for species protection, the use of whalebone in fashion was banned and replaced by alternative materials like steel, wire, and plastic. So, whalebone in fashion, like restrictive corsets, thankfully became a thing of the past.
5. Radioactive Materials
Yes, you read that correctly. There were indeed instances in which radioactive substances like radium were used to create glowing elements in fashion. A chilling example is the tragic story of the "Radium Girls": a group of mostly young immigrant girls in Newark and Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted watch dials with radium in the early 20th century. Needless to say, there were no precautions or protective measures in those days. Radium was even publicly regarded as a healing and health-promoting elixir. So, the young factory workers thought nothing of licking their brushes while painting. Since the smallest pocket watch had a diameter of only 3.5 cm, the smallest element to be painted was just one millimetre wide. The work required the utmost precision, and so the "lip-pointing" technique was used to make the brush even finer and narrower.
Since 95% of the watches were used for military purposes, the demand for the luminous watches skyrocketed during World War I. One out of every six soldiers owned a watch painted by the roughly 400 "Radium Girls." Even after World War I, demand continued to rise. In 1919, 2.2 million luminous watches were produced – all made using the "lip-pointing" technique. In 1921, the factory workers started showing worrying symptoms: toothaches, sores in the mouth, gum and jaw pain, hip and foot pain. Gradually, some of them began losing teeth. One girl lost all her teeth, and her jawbone was so rotted that the dentist simply pulled it out of her mouth. Another girl died due to bleeding caused by an oral ulcer that had penetrated the jugular vein. Since the symptoms weren't initially linked to radium, demand and production of the watches continued to soar, even after World War II. It wasn't until the 1960s that the production of luminous watches was finally halted, along with other products containing radioactive substances, like radium-based face powders and uranium glass jewellery. Today, radioactive materials in fashion are strictly banned, for obvious reasons.
Conclusion: 5 Banned Fashion Materials That Used to Be Legal
As you can see, there were some pretty crazy, creepy, and now rightfully banned materials in fashion that were once considered perfectly normal. Thanks to easier access to information, we are becoming more enlightened and conscious consumers, enabling us to continuously improve fashion standards. And if these five materials were considered normal not too long ago, there are likely materials today that will soon be recognized as illegal. Plastics, animal-based materials, heavy metals and chemicals in dyeing processes, and other toxic, unethical, environmentally and health-damaging materials, will hopefully be banned soon to create a more sustainable future. And the first step always begins with us, right in our own closets.
Find out in our 2022 Impact Report how we at SANVT are working to inspire a change in the fashion industry and join us in making fashion greener.