While organic and fair trade cotton clothing continues to flood the high street and feed shoppers' appetites for fashion with a conscience, the issue of animal welfare is largely overlooked.
For some this is already an important and emotive subject. For others, it is a complicated area that is set to climb higher up the public agenda as consumer awareness of sourcing policies and product origin grows.
The current picture is murky and polarised. At the top of the ethical pile, womenswear brand Ciel and footwear label Beyond Skin refuse to use any products derived from animals. A few are treading a middle line, either digging deeper into the issue or approaching it in a more general way. The generalists make up the majority of the industry, which barely gives the subject a passing nod.
Many of the issues surrounding animal welfare in fashion centre on the supply chain. These can include the sourcing of leather and trying to work with suppliers who are equally aware of the subject, and vetoing the use of any materials from endangered species.
David Bowles, head of external affairs at the RSPCA, says the fashion sector lags behind on the animal welfare issue by up to 15 years. He says: "Everyone has an opinion about fur and we estimate about 70% of consumers won't wear it. But consumer perception and understanding of the softer issues such as leather is unclear."
However, the industry is showing signs of increased awareness, he says. The number of fashion-related applicants to the RSPCA Good Business Awards has risen (although it is still lower than from the food and cosmetics industries) and areas other than fur are being discussed. "Companies are realising that their policies and suppliers need to be improved, for example through a secure auditing process - and they are asking us how to do it," he says.
The important thing, says Bowles, is that the industry is reacting to customers' desire for ethical fashion. "It's true to say that animal issues are way behind, but there will soon be more pressure on the industry to change, and I think it will change quickly."
Ciel, one of the best-known designer ethical fashion brands, sits at the top, niche-end of the industry and outlaws any use of leather or animal-derived material in its collections - instead majoring on hemp silk and organic linen. Designer Sarah Ratty says animal welfare could well be the industry's next big thing. She says: "I don't see the point of using leather - there are plenty of great imitations."
Ethical footwear label Beyond Skin also sits on the right side of the animal welfare fence. It uses cotton-backed polyurethane to ensure its footwear is "cruelty-free". Director and founder Natalie Dean says: "The industry must take more responsibility for animal welfare. It will take time, but it's moving in the right direction."
Marks & Spencer, winner of an RSPCA Good Business Award in the fashion category last year, is the one big retailer making concrete improvements in this area.
M&S's sustainable development manager Katie Stafford says the move was a natural extension of the high animal welfare standards it enforces on its food products. The first rule is that any animal products should always be a by-product - an animal should never be killed just for its skin. Also, endangered species are off-limits and the use of Indian leather has been banned after concerns about the transportation process of cows prior to slaughter.
Stafford admits that the policy is far from complete. "We don't yet have standards for every individual animal and its origin, though we are moving towards that," she says.
Topshop and Gap are also investigating the area in more depth. Melanie Frame, Topshop's technical manager, says the retailer has started to look more closely into its leather products and transparency along the supply chain. "We have declaration documents which we ask our suppliers to verify to ensure they source ethically and compliantly. We expect animals to be treated in a humane way," she says.
Gap is reticent on the subject, but says it requires manufacturers to purchase materials fromsuppliers that comply with applicable animal welfare laws, and points out that it does not use leather or suede from China or India.
The nitty-gritty of how to source leather and other animal products ethically is perhaps the biggest challenge facing brands and retailers.
Dirk Fuhrmann, creative director of The Boot Tree, owner of the Natural Shoe Store - which stocks a mix of leather and non-leather footwear - highlights the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.
There are thousands of tanneries worldwide supplying leather to the industry but just four conform to ISO 14001, the certification setting environmental standards. Even then, these standards relate to the environmental process of leather production - tanning methods, for example - rather than how the animal has been transported or killed.
Fuhrmann says: "It is difficult to find specific information. We know our suppliers get their leather from tanneries, but it's difficult to find out where the tanneries get their materials."
Many of The Boot Tree's suppliers use only European hides, where animal welfare guidelines on slaughter and transportation are tighter than in the Far East or India.
Robin Webb launched Vegetarian Shoes because, as a vegetarian, he wanted to provide a non-leather alternative for footwear. He argues that non-leather options made from microfibres are plentiful and viable. "We are doing our own thing; we aren't really a campaigning company," he says. "I just know I don't want to wear leather and am providing an alternative."
Emmeline Child, creative director of Emmeline 4 Re, which makes women's clothes using recycled materials, says animal welfare is low down the agenda in most consumers' minds. She says: "People are aware that fur is unethical, but many leathers are not a by-product and are bred purely for the industry. How the animal is kept and bred never seems to be considered when buying the must-have bag.
"Unfortunately, it takes time and money to research and source from ethical producers, which is why it is often overlooked. But as awareness grows, and a few retailers and brands lead the way, other firms will have to follow suit."
- For more information on this year's RSPCA Good Business Awards, visit the web site at www.rspcagoodbusinessawards.com.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR APPROACH TO ANIMAL WELFARE
- If you have a strict no-fur policy, join the Fur Free Alliance (FFA).
- Trace all materials of animal origin - leathers, skins and feathers - back to their source. Most food retailers can now trace food products back to the farm of origin. The same needs to happen for farmed animal products used in fashion.
- Establish what standards of welfare are applied during transport to and at the slaughterhouse. At the very least, standards should be as high as those set out in EU law.
- If standards are poor, discontinue the product or work to improve the situation.
- Leather produced as a by-product of the meat industry should be sourced in preference to that from animals specifically reared for leather. Never assume that a product of animal origin is a by-product of an animal farmed/killed for another purpose.
- Treat any unlabelled goods of animal origin with suspicion.