Yes, animal products can also be sustainable — an unpopular but essential perspective.
Can you be a sustainability advocate and still consume animal-based products?
If we look up search engines to know what Sustainability is, the answer is more or less the following:
It is the fusion of social equality, economic vitality, and environmental health. It focuses on safeguarding the environment, reversing climate change, and advancing social development without jeopardising life on earth.
For me, Sustainability is about mindful consumption. It is about ‘how’ we consume rather than ‘what’.
If we keep producing and consuming/hoarding earth-friendly plant-based products mindlessly, are we being sustainable? Or are we simply rejecting all animal-based products and making easy replacements with assumed ‘conscious’ products without trying to change our consumption patterns?
Let’s look at three animal-based products and if mindful consumption of these can be a possibility:
I talked to conscious small business owners, working directly on grassroots levels with the producers of these animal-based products —and here’s what I found out:
The population of honey bees is decreasing for multiple reasons, primarily due to human activities like pollution and urbanisation. As a result of the massive demand for honey, the declining population of bees is made to overwork to meet market demands, alongside adulteration of the product itself. Overconsumption and irresponsible production of commercialised honey led to cruelty toward bees! Instead of letting nature run its course, humans control the production and supply of the same.
However, there’s a catch-22 situation here. The survival of bees is essential for a healthy ecosystem, and beekeepers understand this importance. Therefore, they actively work towards preserving honey bees from going extinct. It also makes economic sense (if we consider it) as honey production is a good income source for beekeepers and local farmers.
When it comes to honey, we must find solutions that encourage a balanced way of mindful production and consumption. Purchasing raw, unadulterated honey from genuine conscious brands can be a good step towards our health, the environment, the bee population, and the beekeeping community.
I’ve read articles about how the silk industry is cruel to the planet, animals, and ecosystems. Hailing from Assam — the Northeastern state in India, I am well aware of its fame for its rich biodiversity and home to three indigenous varieties of silk — Muga, Pat & Eri. In addition, it is known for its forests, wildlife tourism, tea, and silks.
How is this healthy coexistence possible? Because the silk industry here is primarily a cottage industry. The production happens in interior villages, which are preserved as forest land. Silkworms cannot naturally survive where there is the hustle and bustle of polluting human activities. These are very delicate organisms that need a pollution-free environment to survive.
During the production of most silks like mulberry, silkworms die. However, silkworms are also a part of the diet of a lot of forest-dependent communities. It is their prime source of protein with the lowest carbon footprint. But is it fair to cancel out silk because of this reason itself? The people producing silk in India are primarily indigenous tribal communities and real torch-bearers of sustainable living. They coexist peacefully with nature and protect whatever green cover we have left.
Sericulture practices in India also have a strong cultural history, and we should look at it from a socio-economic point of view. The indigenous silk industry in India is not functioning like a carbon-emitting urban factory producing fast fashion. A pure silk sari lasts for generations. It stands for exactly what sustainable fashion brands globally keep talking about — quality over quantity.
It is understandable when someone says no to silk out of compassion for silkworms. For that, there is Eri Silk — a cruelty-free indigenous variety, which is also the hero material of my slow fashion label, Kaizen the label. A point to note is that all Ahimsa silks available in the market are not Eri.
To wear and use silk is a personal choice, but let’s not cancel out silk for just being an animal-based product because Sustainability is not only about animals or humans. It is about coexistence in harmony.
Most of us have seen disturbing videos of industrial animal herding for wool. But is all wool manufactured in the same cruel way?
While industrial animal husbandry is a reality, there also exists what we know as mobile pastoralism. Mobile pastoralism involves families moving with their animals or herds year-round in search of fresh pasture and water. India still has pastoral communities that practice traditional herding where animals graze freely and are not denied their natural habitat.
Animal herding practices in certain regions are necessary for a healthy co-dependence between humans and animals, which is vital for survival. The herders sheer the excess hair of the sheep or yaks for wool. While the pastoral communities in India struggle to sustain themselves, most of the wool available to us is imported.
Wool is not an unsustainable product; irresponsible industrial production makes it non-favourable to animals. Here, we need to have a nuanced conversation about the difference between industrial wool (manufactured in an industrial setup) and indigenous wool from pastoral communities.
‘Where did it come from?’ is the question we need to ask as conscious consumers.
Sustainability goes much deeper than popular trending notions, much of which are from the western point of view. Modernisation and marketing should fuel and enrich the product, planet and the people involved and not prove to be harmful to the whole ecosystem.
What is majorly lacking in our discussions about climate change and Sustainability today is the voice of the authentic custodians of environment-friendly living — the indigenous communities living close to nature and coexisting with the wild.
Whether it is honey, silk, or wool, there’s a common factor we need to consider for all three: the importance of ancestral knowledge of the communities directly involved in making the product.
Without making stubborn claims and conclusions, let us be open to narratives beyond what is popularly considered woke today! Beyond the American documentaries and reports by reputed organisations, we must have an open ear for the knowledge and wisdom of artisans, beekeepers, herders, and farmers. Let us have a nuanced conversation regarding the balanced usage of natural resources — be they animal or plant-based as well as cruelty-free products. Our aim should be to decipher solutions that benefit both people and the planet, to coexist in harmony, and not to boycott a product just because it is animal-based.
Key insight contributors
This article is authored by Namrata Gohain, a sustainable fashion & crafts professional with 10+ years of experience. An advocate of SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption, she runs a conscious craft-based business called Kaizen, the label. This brand works with artisan communities of mainly Northeast and East India.
She works with other organizations with a similar ethos in multiple domains, including managerial duties for merchandising, operations, creative content and brand building. An avid reader with many questions, she loves research and has a knack for continuous learning. She aims to get Indian artisanal crafts and underdog sustainable natural textiles a better market and bring the dignity of labour to the artisans of India.