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Interiors & Design Style & Fashion

Ethical Living: The Stylish Face of Cruelty-Free Fashion & Homeware

More of us than ever are turning to a cruelty-free way of living, and it’s not just about what we eat. Meet the ethical pioneers who are working to make your home and wardrobe a plant-based paradise, without compromising on style

Unsurprisingly, many ethical living and vegan brands are started because their founders love animals and do not wish to exploit them. This is certainly the case with Companion Candles’ Loren Lewin, a long-time fan of all things scented, waxy, and wicky. When COVID-19 struck and she was forced to spend “99.9% of my time in my small city apartment with my dog, Mylo,” she started wondering what was really in the candles she so loved—and how safe they were for both her and her companion.

“The candles were created out of a love for animals and also a frustration with the candle industry,” says Lewin. “I was disturbed to find out that most candles are made with petroleum, paraffins, phthalates, and other harmful chemicals. Not only are these ingredients toxic when burned, they’re also terrible for the environment. So, I set out to create a line of cruelty-free candles that are safe for you and your pets, and also give back.”

That giving back means the company donates $1 to animal rescue organizations for every candle sold.

Sparking Joy

Ten candles in jars with white labels and black text stacked in two rows
Friends of the earth: Companion Candles are scented without causing harm, and this collection features gardenia, coconut and vanilla, apple and clove, and honey and musk fragrances among others.

Companion Candles have dog-themed names and taglines. “I love you, I love you! I am fur-ever yours” adorns the pot of a santal-scented offering, while a hydrangea and vanilla candle declares “Anywhere with you. Completely mutts about you.” Mylo and other furry friends regularly appear on Lewin’s marketing materials.

All Companion Candles are made in the United States and are free of paraffins, phthalates, preservatives, and many common toxins. There are no additives or dyes and their wooden wicks are eco-friendly, clean-burning, and made from FSC-certified wood. In line with ethical living, they are also cruelty-free—while many other candles contain beeswax, tallow, or stearic acid derived from animal fats, Lewin’s are entirely plant-based.

The candles were created out of a love for animals and a frustration with the candle industry—Loren Lewin

“There is a growing awareness of animal welfare and the ethical concerns surrounding the treatment of animals used for food, clothing, and other products,” Lewin believes. “As a result, more people are choosing to purchase vegan and cruelty-free products as a way to align their values with their purchasing decisions.”

Sweet Dreams

More pragmatic reasoning was behind the move into the vegan arena by the U.K.’s Cottonsafe Natural Mattresses. Concerned about the risks associated with fire-retardant chemicals used in mattress-making “to our team, customers, and the environment,” the company developed its first entirely natural and chemical-free mattresses, which it launched in 2013. Director Rebecca Willis picks up the story.

“There has been a significant consumer movement towards more sustainable purchasing over the past few years, as well as a growth in environmental veganism. While our products have always been sustainable, meeting the Stockholm Convention for safe disposal and being chemical-free as well as recyclable and biodegradable, we were conscious that we didn’t meet the expectations of vegan consumers because [mattresses] were largely made from animal fibers such as wool.”

The company set about creating its vegan mattresses, made with polyester, “which is inherently fire retardant, and fully recyclable.” Launched in 2018, the mattresses (and pillows) were the U.K.’s first to be entirely vegan and Vegan Society accredited.

“We are different from any other mattress manufacturer because we don’t use any harmful glues and chemicals to make any of our products. While still meeting all the U.K. fire regulations, our mattresses remain safe and chemical-free up to and beyond their end of life.”

And, of course, they don’t use any of the cashmere, camel hair, or horse hair found in traditional mattresses or any animal-derived adhesives or lubricants. Willis says that the vegan mattresses are increasingly popular among those embracing ethical living, accounting for close to half of the company’s sales.

Bags of Character

A light brown large shopper bag over a woman's shoulder
One of Vicki von Holzhausen's vegan bags, the large shopper is constructed in durable Technik-Leather made from plants and recycled water bottles, and comes in seven different color options.

Environmental concerns were a key driver for Vicki von Holzhausen, a former car designer whose eponymous company has developed vegan leathers that are used on fashion accessories and in cars. “I’m a problem solver by nature and I’ve always loved design,” she explains. “In the car industry, I was very interested in environmentalism… about the impact people had on the environment.”

Concerned by how much wastage there was when using animal hides to upholster vehicles, von Holzhausen “saw a huge opportunity for something different, not just for cars but for fashion. I thought, ‘There has to be another way, there’s no need to use animal skins any more.’”

Our clients love the look and function of our bags. The fact that they are sustainable is a bonus—Vicki von Holzhausen

In 2016, von Holzhausen and her team began working on what would become Technik-Leather, made from post-consumer plastic and plants and used on bags and accessories. This was followed by “buttery soft” Banbū Leather and Struktur Leather, engineered “for extreme wear” such as car interiors. Updates and new leathers are in the works. “We are an innovation company, we’re constantly leapfrogging our own work,” says von Holzhausen.

A long-time vegetarian and latterly vegan, von Holzhausen has strong views on ethical living and particularly livestock production, “the massive amount of resources it takes to grow a cow,” and on our dependence on plastics. To address the latter she has created leathers that are “based on plant chemistry, not petroleum chemistry,” and a backing component that actively accelerates biodegradation in a zero-oxygen environment should a bag be discarded.

Not that this is likely to be a common occurrence. Von Holzhausen believes shoppers choose her bags, backpacks, laptop cases, and accessories “because they actually care about style more than anything. Our clients love the look and function of our bags. So many people think our bags are leather, not just because of the material but the old artisan techniques we use, the stitching, the painted edges. The fact that they are sustainable is an added bonus.”

Style and Substance

Collage of a woman in a plaid jacket holding a small brown handbag in front of apples
The WEEK/END bag by designer Frida Rome is made of apple leather, and is available from Immaculate Vegan. Collage artwork: Selman Hoşgör

To find the vegan clothing, accessories, and homewares for her portal Immaculate Vegan, Annick Ireland spends “a lot of time searching the world for brands that share our values, that really are about living ethically and sustainably, without the greenwashing.”

Immaculate Vegan launched with around 60 brands in 2019, originally as an Instagram blog, and today offers products from more than 100 designers and companies.

Customers are understanding the impact of fashion on the environment, and demanding ethical-living and sustainable alternatives—Annick Ireland

“We launched pre-COVID, and four months later we were in a lockdown,” says Ireland. “Not surprisingly, we saw a radical shift away from smarter clothing and accessories, such as high-heeled shoes and smart work bags, to more sneakers and casual wear. And while we’ve recently seen an increase in people investing in more dressy items again, sneakers are still our best-selling category.”

Every item on Ireland’s site has to “pass our test of both aesthetics and ethics” complying with stringent conditions with regard to materials (must be 100 percent vegan and as sustainable as possible), manufacturing, and use of ethical labor.

Ireland believes that increased interest in vegan products and lifestyle is down to several factors coming together: “The increasing urgency of climate-change issues, which we know animal agriculture is a major contributor to; an increasing awareness of the harm and suffering caused by industrial factory farming; and people’s awareness of how much healthier plant-based diets can be.”

She also notes that the fashion industry is a major environmental polluter, one of biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and a heavy contributor to deforestation, habitat loss, and loss of biodiversity. “Customers are understanding the impact of fashion on the environment, and demanding ethical-living and sustainable alternatives. Just as in food, vegan has become the benchmark to aim for when choosing more consciously.”

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