What to do with leather and other items made of non-vegan materials after making the transition to veganism? Is it still okay to wear them? And, if so, is it okay to buy second-hand or vintage items, too?
It’s a tough question that I’ve been wrestling a lot with myself recently.
The first thing I immediately prioritised when I went vegan was my diet. This was my most obvious means of consumption and something which felt far more clear-cut to me. I didn’t have to buy meat or dairy anymore, therefore I wasn’t contributing to these industries. Done and dusted.
But it didn’t feel so straightforward with my clothes and possessions. I’d spent my hard-earned money on these things, plus I didn’t want to have to bring new stuff into the world on my mission to replace everything I owned… But it was still a troubling thought continuing to use and wear animal products – wouldn’t this make me the worst kind of hypocrite?!
So I set about to navigate my own moral compass on this issue – and here’s where I’m at right now.
A Question of Vegan Ethics: Purism vs Pragmatism
A purist vegan will argue that animals’ lives have inherent value and should never be treated as a commodity. We should therefore donate, dispose of and replace these items as quickly as possible with vegan alternatives.
A pragmatic vegan, by contrast, accepts that we live in an imperfect, non-vegan world and will do the best they can to minimise exploitation and animal suffering moving forwards, whilst continuing to use these items until they wear out.
There is no definitive answer, but on balance, I sit more on the pragmatic side of the debate. While I am entirely sympathetic to a purist point of view – animals certainly should not undergo suffering or exist as a means to an end for human consumption – I don’t subscribe to the view that everything already in existence must go now.
We need to remain realistic and not get too caught up in theoretical nuances. There are more important things we can be doing to raise awareness and encourage people to transition to veganism. The idea that people have to be ‘perfect’ is only going to turn them away from a vital cause. We also need to be mindful of waste and use up resources already in existence rather than bringing yet more new things into the world.
What Should You Do With Leather & Other Animal Products Once You’ve Gone Vegan?
If, on a personal level, you simply don’t feel comfortable wearing or owning animal products anymore, then that’s completely understandable. Consider donating these items, selling them and giving the proceeds to an animal charity, or, if they’re unwearable, recycle or bin them.
Otherwise, I would continue to wear out these items. When you get to a stage where they need replacing, buy secondhand. Or, if you are in a financial position to do so, invest in innovative vegan companies that align with your values. This creates more market demand for the kinds of products you want to see in the world, with the development of durable cruelty-free ‘leathers’ made from apple, pineapple, cork, etc.
Ultimately, this is a personal choice that you’ll have your own thoughts about. So, let’s deep-dive into some of the reasons you may want to get rid of all your non-vegan products immediately, as well as the flip side – why you might decide to keep hold of them a little longer.
5 Reasons You May Want to Get Rid of All Your Non-Vegan Items – Now
1. They are the co-product of suffering and exploitation
The truth of the matter is that animals have suffered horribly for your non-vegan products. I don’t know about you, but I find this knowledge in itself very troubling when it comes to my relationship with my current belongings.
Due to activist campaigning, most people thankfully now wouldn’t wear fur. However, the narratives around other so-called ‘natural’ materials like leather, wool and silk are still largely positive thanks to pervasive marketing across the clothing industry.
It’s commonplace for people to assume that leather is simply a by-product of factory farming and that the skins would sit around going to waste if they weren’t made use of. If an animal has sacrificed its life for us, the argument goes, then shouldn’t we honour it by using as much of it as possible?
This is a nice theory to help us sleep easier at night. However, the grim reality is that the leather industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in which animals are regularly killed primarily for their skins (watch the documentary film Earthlings or SLAY to educate yourself on the topic). This doesn’t even touch on the fact that it is a leading cause of environmental damage and relies on many heavy chemical processes that affect the long-term health of leather workers and local communities.
While much leather is a product of the meat industry, it’s fairer to say that it is a ‘co-product’ rather than a ‘by-product’. The skins of animals are often more profitable than the meat itself, so this is a business model that relies on leather sales. In other words, meat and leather are two sides of the same coin.
Wool and silk are also effectively slaughter industries that impose mutilation and suffering as standard.
2. It normalises the idea that animals are commodities
It was social psychologist Melanie Joy who first coined the term ‘carnism’ – essentially, the invisible dominant belief system that normalises eating animals. In this oppressive model, animals regularly ‘disappear’ into fashion items and other homewares.
This was a wake-up call for me when thinking about my own non-vegan items. For instance, I would struggle (as I think most people would) to wear something made of snakeskin, alligator, fur or feathers – probably because it’s so obviously made from an animal. It’s therefore no surprise that out of all my possessions, I was finding my leather jacket the most problematic. But what about my leather boots, the lining in my car, or the toggle on my washbag? These didn’t so obviously scream ‘animal’ to me – but that doesn’t make them any better than a fur coat.
I think this really highlights just how inconspicuous animals have become in our everyday products. And the more we continue wearing animals and using animal products, this of course goes some way to normalising and endorsing the status quo – that animals are nothing more than objects for human consumption.
3. It’s not just about market demand – it’s the principle
Say you were to never buy another animal product ever again, thus reducing the market demand for these products. There is still the question of principle when it comes to continuing to wear and use your current non-vegan belongings.
Let’s take food as an example. You’re at a family BBQ where meat has been bought and there’s one burger left that’s only going to go in the bin. Technically, the meat has already been purchased so you wouldn’t be contributing to any more market demand were you to eat it. Plus, the animal has already died so you wouldn’t inflict any more suffering. However, as a vegan, it’s unlikely you would do this because you recognise the inherent principle that eating animals is wrong.
By this logic, the same should go for any animal product already in your life.
4. Buying second-hand can still contribute to demand
Some vegans will argue that by wearing and using what they already own plus buying secondhand or vintage items, they aren’t contributing to more demand for leather products. They are simply making use of what is already in circulation – a more sustainable way of shopping than always purchasing new.
However, remember that even within the world of used clothing, a system of supply and demand still exists. If leather jackets are regularly purchased at a thrift store, then that store will look to replace that product and maybe even source more of it moving forwards if they notice it’s a popular choice.
Plus, with the increasingly rapid turnover of fast fashion, clothing may only take a matter of weeks or months to make it into a secondhand store.
5. Don’t kid yourself that you’re ‘honouring’ the life of the animal
Some vegans that continue wearing leather goods and other non-vegan items will say things like:
“At least the animal didn’t die for nothing.”
“It honours the life of the animal.”
“That animal’s sacrifice won’t go completely to waste.”
However, when you think about it, who does this really honour other than the people who profit from these industries, e.g. the clothing brand or the farming corporation? We live in a commodity culture where animals routinely become objects, so it’s completely disingenuous to use the kind of language a hunter-gatherer might have used when killing animals and endeavouring to use all of the body parts.
5 Reasons You May Want to Gradually Phase Out Your Non-Vegan Items
1. It’s a privilege to be able to replace your stuff
Unlike leaving the leftover burger at that BBQ, the first and most obvious problem with getting rid of your stuff is exactly that – it is already your stuff, therefore you can’t just ignore it because you are already responsible for it. You may need these things and have to replace them. And, if you’re not in a financial position where this is viable, then we should recognise that any pressure to do so comes from a place of privilege.
If you have the money to make this possible, then by all means go out today and replace all of your non-vegan items. However, for most of us, it’s not quite so simple. Arguably, I have plenty of coats, so I could reasonably dispose of my leather jacket and not miss it. But there are plenty of items that I would realistically need to replace.
While choosing to keep our non-vegan items shouldn’t feel completely comfortable, we also shouldn’t be shamed if we aren’t able to immediately commit to this kind of radical overhaul overnight.
2. It’s not a sustainable model
Ultimately, it becomes a question of competing values. You can absolutely care about the animal liberation movement but also care about sustainability and reducing waste. When you weigh up these two values, sustainability considerations may win out.
Imagine that there was a mass shift away from animal products and everyone began disposing of all these items and replacing them with plant-based alternatives. There is simply too much stuff in the world to make this a viable option. The most pragmatic solution then becomes to wear out your animal products (under no illusions about ‘honouring’ the animal) before choosing to replace them with kinder alternatives. This minimises waste and slows the constant production of new things.
In a similar vein, there are fast fashion items I purchased before realising the effect this industry has on garment workers in poorer countries. That said, I will keep wearing these items until they wear out rather than contributing to the problem – a throwaway, disposable culture.
3. Selling or donating items raises ethical questions
There is also the question of exactly how best to get rid of your old stuff. Selling it is problematic because you are then only continuing a destructive cycle – both profiting from and normalising the use of animal products.
Donating these items to charity isn’t much better as it still generally means that they will go on to be sold. You might be able to find a charity that hands out clothing to the homeless, but while this is great for a cosy down jacket, it’s probably not so helpful for your fashion items like lightweight leather jackets or silk shirts.
The only other option is to dispose of these items, contributing to landfill and using up further resources with replacements.
4. It’s not just clothes – animal products are all around us
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.
The Vegan Society, A Definition of Veganism
And that’s the key – “as far as is possible and practical” – because delve far enough into anything and you’re opening up a can of worms. You’ll likely find that the vast majority of the household products you own contain animal-derived ingredients in some shape or form.
If you continue down a strictly purist route, you wouldn’t be able to drive because vegan cars don’t exist yet. TVs, computers, phones and tablets all use animal cholesterol in their screens. Even the very bricks-and-mortar of your home probably isn’t vegan (ox blood and animal fat are typically added so that building materials last longer).
The point I’m trying to make is that we live within a framework of manufacturing that uses non-vegan materials. This isn’t to be defeatist or accepting of this fact, but if “the secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new,” then let’s work on reform with our future purchasing decisions.
5. Perfectionism shouldn’t be the enemy of the good
Perfectionism can be a real stumbling block to progress, as Peter Singer points out in his seminal text on animal rights Animal Liberation:
The point of altering one’s buying habits is not to keep oneself untouched by evil, but to reduce the economic support for the exploitation of animals, and to persuade others to do the same. So it is not a sin to continue to wear leather shoes you bought before you began to think about Animal Liberation. When your leather shoes wear out, buy nonleather ones.
What to Do With Non-Vegan Belongings: Be Sensible & Make Better Choices Moving Forwards
We are more likely to persuade others to share our attitude if we temper our ideals with common sense than if we strive for the kind of purity that is more appropriate to a religious dietary law than to an ethical and political movement.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
Animals are sentient beings that should be given the freedom to live their own individual lives – they aren’t just a means to an end to satisfy our commodity culture. As true as this may be, as vegans we also need to pick and choose our battles so that veganism remains accessible and change is encouraged – after all, small shifts snowball and gain momentum.
Wherever possible, I don’t buy animal products anymore (including secondhand). But I also won’t be rushing to dispose of or replace all the animal products I already own right this second. And while I’m not completely comfortable with this, I can at least rest easier in the knowledge that this is a fully considered decision that aligns as closely as possible with my values.
Anything that I can live without, I’ll probably still dispose of. And as for any necessities that eventually wear out, such as shoes, I’ll opt for vegan replacements. For those essential items that probably won’t be vegan for a while, e.g. my next car, I’ll go for the best electric, vegan-as-possible option that’s available on the market. In short – I’ll do my best.
Do you agree or disagree on the issue of leather and other non-vegan items? What did you do with these things after transitioning to veganism? Join in the discussion in the comments below!