There are plenty of questions most vegans are likely to get asked at some point; “Where do you get your protein from?”; “Do you miss bacon?”; “Don’t plants feel pain?” However, some questions can be a bit more dividing. As vegans, we believe that it’s wrong to use animals for food, fashion and entertainment, or any other exploitative reason. It’s a topic that people — vegans and non-vegans alike — can be quite torn by, and it’s not a simple question to answer.
In recent years, it’s become easier to live a vegan lifestyle, with more plant-based options than ever before in supermarkets and restaurants. However when it comes to our wardrobe it can be difficult to navigate the do’s and don’ts. Pre-dating the invention of modern fabrics, the use of animal skins, furs, feathers and wool were essential to human survival. Now though, with cruelty-free alternatives readily available, the idea of killing animals and wearing their skins is something we as vegans are fundamentally against, and it’s a practice we hope to see the end of as soon as possible.
As a society, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact our choices have on society and the environment, and the conversation around how we create and consume fashion is continuing to grow. People are trying to find a way to enjoy fashion, but in a more sustainable way. The argument commonly put forward for vegans buying second hand animal materials is that it doesn’t financially benefit the original manufacturers, as the purchase has already been made, and can’t be undone. Can this line of reasoning fully justify a vegan’s choice to wear leather or wool products, or is there still a conflict of core morals at play here?
Perhaps it’s a simple question of supply and demand. Second hand clothing sold in charity shops and vintage stores have already been paid for by the original owner, so the purchase of these cannot increase the demand for those products. If purchasing second hand clothing containing leather or wool doesn’t feed the demand for these materials, is it really supporting the act of harming an animal?
We know that buying new clothing will have more of an environmental impact than buying clothes from a charity shop, so could this be part of the antidote to fast fashion? Clothes with faux leather or a synthetic alternative to wool can be very damaging to the environment, from the chemicals used to make them to the microplastics released in the washing machine.
However, according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, the environmental impact of leather and wool are far worse than that of synthetic leather, nylon and even polyester! This is just regarding the stages involved up until the material is finished and ready to turn into a garment, and you would need to consider the environmental impacts your clothing has during the stages of it’s use and end-of-life. It could also be argued that animal-based clothing would be more likely to biodegrade than synthetic clothing, making it a more sustainable choice.
Some people believe that this suggested ‘grey area’ of vegans buying second hand leather or wool is confusing the concept of veganism, and could be damaging to the movement. If the goal is to turn the world vegan then are we being hypocritical for wearing materials made from dead animals? Looking at the big picture, we might have to consider how wearing animal materials, real or faux – new or old, is perceived in today’s society. Perhaps the answer is to avoid any clothing that looks like it could have come from an animal – yes, even leopard print!
Ultimately the decision to wear second hand clothing with animal materials comes down to you as an individual; what ethics are most important to you, and what it means to you to be a vegan. You may focus on the environmental side of the argument, or you might be swayed by the animal welfare factors. Either way, it’s best to do your own research and come up with an answer that you feel comfortable with. How you define your position as a vegan should guide your feelings about wearing such clothing, regardless of whether it came from a high street retailer or a second hand charity shop.