After going vegan, you may wonder what to do with your old leather shoes, wool coat, and other items made from animal materials. Or, if it’s vegan to purchase second-hand leather and other vintage non-vegan materials.
For me, these questions are two sides of the same coin and I have a strong opinion about it:
Vegans should strive to stop wearing animal materials, new or used, as soon as possible.
Within a vegan framework, where animals’ lives have inherent value, using animals’ body parts should be off the table. The only valid reason for continuing to wear animal materials is necessity – and it’s not an argument per se – it just is the reality of the world we live in.
There are vegans who, for example, have leather work boots they need for their job. If they can’t afford to replace them, there’s no arguing with that. People need to survive and there are other ways to contribute to the cause of animal liberation besides vegan consumption.
But, that doesn’t mean we should tell ourselves that wearing the bodies of others is all well and good. We should strive to replace non-vegan clothing when possible.
Arguments for Continuing to Use Animal Materials
I spend way too much time reading comments in vegan Facebook groups and on Reddit. I’ve noticed the same few specious arguments crop up again and again for continuing to wear animal materials, or for purchasing second-hand non-vegan products. These arguments excuse and perpetuate the practice of wearing animals.
I’d like to address those arguments below.
This blog post is not meant to shame anyone who does still need to use animal materials they already own or find second-hand. But it’s also not meant to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy about it. I’m really writing this for anyone who can afford to participate in the fashion market, and who might be struggling to let go of their favorite leather jacket.
Some people argue that purchasing second-hand leather shoes and belts, wool coats, cashmere sweaters, silk dresses, and other non-vegan clothing, or continuing to wear already-owned non-vegan clothing is vegan or doesn’t harm animals because it doesn’t contribute to the market demand for more animal materials.
This argument is incorrect for a few reasons.
- If veganism was only about market demand, vegans would be eating meat and cheese that would have otherwise gone to waste. Vegans would eat those non-vegan cupcakes someone brought to the office since they were already paid for.
But vegans generally don’t do this because they’ve internalized the suffering that was necessary for those cupcakes to exist. When a vegan refuses a non-vegan cupcake at work, they demonstrate the principle that others’ lives are not for use. In short, market demand is not everything. Principles matter too.
- Wearing already owned or vintage non-vegan clothing does contribute to market demand, if indirectly. This contribution can be outright influence, or just normalization.
Normalization: Wearing animal materials normalizes wearing animal materials, and therefore implicitly endorses the status quo. From an animal liberationist’s point of view, the status quo, where animals are treated and valued only as raw materials traded in the marketplace, is unacceptable.
Influence: Wearing a cool vintage suede skirt can inspire or influence someone else to purchase a new suede skirt – not everyone buys used clothing. It can even inspire a fashion designer to make a whole line of new suede skirts.
I used to work in a vintage store, and fashion designers would regularly buy pieces just to recreate them.
Even within the world of used clothing, there is a system of supply and demand. The more second-hand leather is purchased, the more thrift stores will seek to source leather goods, and the more leather is seen as a valuable, covetable material. With the high turnover of fast fashion, and the increasing popularity of buy/sell/trade stores like Buffalo Exchange, new cheap leather can become “second-hand” within only a few months.
But isn’t leather a by-product?
An off-shoot of the market demand argument is the idea that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry and therefore buying leather does not cause harm in itself. This argument even implies that buying new leather is harmless.
Although many animals are actually killed only for their skin and fur, much leather does come from the meat industry. However, people using the by-product argument seem to be living in a fantasy world where the skin of animals is magically removed from the economics of the slaughterhouse. In this fantasy, the animal’s skin was just sitting there, and was going to be thrown out, but some fashion company swooped in to rescue it from being wasted.
It is more accurate to describe this leather as a meat “co-product.” Slaughterhouses do profit from the skins of the animals they kill. The non-edible parts of an animal can add up to be even more profitable for the slaughterhouse than the animal’s parts sold as food. Though leather is the most profitable of the non-edible parts, bones, cartilage, and organs are also sold for use in medicine, cosmetics, candles, and more.
Either way, if slaughterhouses did not sell animals’ skins, they would have to undertake the costly disposal of a massive amount of highly regulated “waste.” The ability to sell these body parts is an integral part of the survival of the slaughterhouse industry. Selling co-products from the animals they kill pads their bottom line – at most it significantly increases profits, and at the least reduces costs.
So, even without going into how leather production is often terrible for the environment and workers’ health, it’s already apparent that leather is inextricably tied to the economics of the meat industry as well as animal suffering. And when you stop and think about what leather is – it cannot exist without an animal losing its life.
Honoring the animal’s life
The argument for continuing to wear non-vegan clothing that bothers me the most is when someone says they are honoring the animal by wearing it. In tandem, they’ll often say that if they threw the clothing away, the animal would have died for nothing.
When a human dies, we don’t say “what a waste” because we can’t use their skin. (Although I suppose organ donation activists might see it a different way). Our culture purports to see the life of a human as worthwhile in itself without also having to make use all of a human’s parts. (The current Chinese forced organ-harvesting not withstanding).
And that is one of the main principles behind veganism – recognizing the inherent worth of non-human life. Wearing the skin of an animal killed for commercial exploitation only honors the person who profited from exploiting the animal and/or the person, perhaps a designer, who turned their body into a garment.
People who use the “honoring the animal” argument for continuing to wear animal products often seem to be trying to invoke traditions of early Native Americans who used every part of an animal they killed. This principle only applies to someone living in a hunter-gatherer society, not in a capitalist one where garments are commodities.
The last, and possibly most common argument for continuing to wear animal materials, is the desire to avoid waste. People are loathe to dispose of things before they’ve outlived their usefulness, and vegan leathers have historically been less durable than animal leathers, though this is changing with new technology. But, if we hold that it is unacceptable to use animals’ bodies, then animal materials should be out of play.
Suppose baby tears turned out to be the most efficient cure for acne. No modern society would condone causing babies to cry simply because it was the best cure. We’ve ruled out exploiting babies. In fact, no one would even test to see if baby tears are a good cure for acne – baby tears are out of play! But, non-human animals’ bodies and lives are still in play for most of the world.
Humans can find solutions in whichever moral framework they apply their creativity.
Recent cruelty-free, eco-friendly, and sustainable material innovations include leathers made from pineapple and apple industry waste, lab-grown mushrooms, kombucha, and more. These developments all came about from humans working within the parameters of not using animals and not harming the environment.
Similarly, many scientists today are at work developing more cruelty-free ways to test cosmetics, as well as medicines
When it comes to waste, it’s a question of competing values.
Which do you value more, reducing waste, or the principle that animals should not be exploited? Can you reduce your waste within a vegan framework that says animals’ bodies and lives are not for using?
A Lesson from Richard Leakey
In 2016, Richard Leakey, the Kenyan conservationist, once again saw over the public burning of confiscated ivory. Some people argued that this would create more demand for ivory by lessening the current supply.
But the idea was that using ivory – taken from illegally killed elephants – should not be socially acceptable. This public destruction of ivory, along with government bans and other stepped up enforcement has seen a reduction in ivory poaching in recent years. Many people who never thought about ivory one way or another would now think twice about purchasing something made of ivory.
The tide is turning
In 2019, in most places it is socially acceptable to wear leather, wool, and silk. But, the tide is already turning against fur thanks to a long, hard-fought battle by activists, as well as consumer power. With the growing awareness of the environmental damage caused by the meat industry, I believe the tide will soon turn on leather.
Those of us who can afford to only buy and wear vegan materials going forward should work toward upending those social norms. And, when we shop from vegan businesses, we enable those businesses to continue to investigate longer-lasting and more sustainable vegan materials.
So, what should vegans do with their old leather, wool, silk, and cashmere, etc. items?
This is a tough question. If we followed Richard Leakey’s example, we would destroy our non-vegan clothing and other objects – publicly. However, public destruction would probably result in backlash because of waste and pollution and distract people from the merits of animal liberation.
Another issue to consider is how much leather, wool and other materials from exploited animals is currently taking up space in the world. Is there even room for it to all be disposed of?
Some ideas for what to do with your leather, cashmere, wool, silk, and other non-vegan items:
- Donate non-vegan items to charities that help people who cannot afford to participate in the fashion market. These would be charities that hand out clothing to people directly rather than selling it in charity shops to raise money for another cause. Your old down-jacket could save the life of someone sleeping outside in the cold.
- Donate some clothing to an animal shelter for use as bedding.
- You can’t afford to replace your non-vegan items just now so you wear what you have until they wear out. Once worn out, they can’t be donated anyway, so you dispose of them.
- Donate items to a charity clothing shop like Out of the Closet.
- Sell or consign non-vegan items and use the proceeds for something positive.
- Dispose of non-vegan items respectfully, like with a burial.
- Throw non-vegan items in the trash.
- Dispose of them publicly a la Richard Leakey.
What do you think?
This is a touchy subject. I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments. What do you think about already-owned and vintage non-vegan clothing and other items?
And, if you’re struggling to find vegan replacements, check out our recent post about vegan winter coats, and our directory of 100% vegan clothing brands including vegan shoe brands, vegan bag brands, and vegan clothing brands.