Committed vegans are looking beyond diet and driving demand for animal product-free furniture
There’s something hilarious about the notion of a vegan sofa (mine doesn’t eat meat either) but the new Vegan collection from DFS has gone one better. It includes ‘Black Cow Vegan Accent Fabric’. You can now buy a sofa, chair or cushion, certified as 100pc vegan and containing no “animal fibres, colouring dyes and components, glues, waxes, fats and oils, or other animal ingredients”. But it’s designed to mimic cowhide.
You have to hand it to DFS for pushing the vegan agenda into furniture production, but I really don’t get why vegan products have to mimic those extracted from animals. I’m getting off my (cruelty free) soapbox now.
Nobody could deny that a world with more plant-based items and less cruelty to animals would be a better place. The principles of veganism boil down to using items that don’t originate from any living creature, aren’t an animal by-product, and aren’t tested on animals. Seems a little niche? Once upon a time, sustainability seemed niche too.
Despite this, the vegan issue is still a little fraught. When the meat-eaters get defensive, the vegans get judgemental. Then, it’s daggers-drawn at the bougie dinner table! The polarisation of this debate benefits nobody.
“When I first became a vegan I felt quite isolated,” says Holly White, an Irish blogger and vegan chef. “Socially, it was very hard. I come from a family where nobody else is vegan. Would I even be accepted at the dinner table?”
Once she realised that she would still be invited to Christmas dinner, White discovered that one of the main stumbling blocks to veganism was style. That whole granola-munching socks-and-sandals look did the vegan image no favours.
“The perception of the vegan lifestyle was not stylish,” she says. “I come from a fashion background and style was a huge focus for me.”
She became certified in plant-based nutrition and found a little more support for her choices. “Hopefully I have become that support for other people too.”
Gradually, White came to realise that, just as vegan food can be delicious, cruelty-free make-up and skincare products can also be glamorous and stylish. Now, the spotlight has turned on homeware and furniture. There’s an overlap here with fashion, which also favours hemp, organic cotton, bamboo fibres and linen over silk, leather and wool.
Faux leather, which is a popular vegan alternative to leather, is more problematic as much as it is made on a plastic base: grand in terms of animal welfare; less so from the sustainability perspective.
Plant fibres win on both counts, and Piñatex, which is made from waste pineapple leaf fibre, is an interesting leather substitute. It meets upholstery requirements, but has yet to make it into mainstream furniture.
Likewise, banana silk, which is made from fibres found in the stem of the banana plant. Ahisma silk, which is made without killing the silkworms in their cocoons, is another option but many vegans prefer to eschew all animal products.
White is not a hardliner. “I do have wool rugs in my home. If I were in a position to renovate I would choose a plant-based fibre but I firmly believe that the most sustainable item is the one that you have already.” So the wool rugs are staying. So are her carnivorous cats.
White’s role with the DFS Vegan range is as stylist and brand ambassador. The Vegan collection has been approved by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an organisation known for rigorous standards. This means that the consumer can be confident that the furniture really is as it claims to be.
It’s an accessibly priced high-street product — the Larch three-seater sofa in Black Cow Vegan Accent fabric costs €969 and the Mulberry four-seater sofa in Charcoal Meadow Plain Fabric costs €1,099 — but its main value is that it draws attention to the use of animal-derived ingredients in the furniture industry. These include glue, which is famously made from dead horses. Personally I find it hard to get exercised about this. Surely it’s better to use the remnant of dead animals than to let them go to waste?
Down, as in the feathers used to fill cushions, duvets and pillows, is more problematic. Sometimes it is plucked from living birds. That’s not nice. The vegan option is to eschew down altogether, but you can also check any feathery items purchased for the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), which “aims to ensure that down and feathers come from animals that have not been subjected to any unnecessary harm”.
The issue of animal products used in paint came to the fore in 2019 when Meghan Markle announced that she was decorating her baby’s nursery in vegan paint. That led to a hasty analysis of non-vegan paints, many of which can contain; a milk-protein called casein which is used for binding; ox gall, which comes from cows; and shellac, a glaze made from the secretions of the lac beetle. If these are of concern, it’s worth drilling deep into the ingredients of your paint brand of choice.
Farrow & Ball scores highly. Its most commonly used finishes are vegan-friendly although two of their specialist finishes contain animal-derived ingredients. Expect to pay around €113 for a five-litre tin of emulsion. Paints and wallpapers from Little Greene are also vegan and not tested on animals (paint pricing is similar to Farrow & Ball). Both brands are available from Stillorgan Décor.
Candles are a tricky one. The cheap ones are made from paraffin, often with a small amount of stearic acid to harden the wax. Coconut-based stearic acid is available but the most commonly used version comes from animal fat (historically it was known as tallow). Upmarket candles often include beeswax which, although laudable in many ways, is not a vegan product.
Irish brands making vegan candles include Max Benjamin and Field Day. As high-street brands begin to examine their vegan credentials, many Irish craft products have always been free of all animal-extracted ingredients. Clare Grennan of Irish Design Shop cites the willow baskets handwoven by Sáille in West Cork, who grows and harvests her own willow, and the Irish linen tea towels from Jupiter Red, which are printed with non-toxic water-based inks.
“We also have Irish hardwood stools by Studio Harris in collaboration with Daniel Gill in Galway,” she says. “All the wood is Irish, mostly sourced from wind-fallen trees, and each stool is finished in a vegan-certified wax.”
See dfs.ie, holly.ie, littlegreene.com, farrow-ball.com, stillorgandecor.ie, and irishdesignshop.com.