A dilemma often faced by new vegans is what to do with all their old leather shoes, woolly jumpers and silk shirts. In fact, I’ve already been asked about this several times over the course of this year’s Great Vegan Challenge. Well, first of all, don’t panic – we don’t expect people taking part in the challenge to go out and buy a new wardrobe just for the sake of one month. But if you decide to stay vegan after the challenge is over – and we really hope that you will – this is a quandary you may experience yourself.
First, however, let’s look at some of the issues with these items, starting with leather. Years ago, even many vegetarians wore leather on the basis that it was a by-product of the meat industry and the animals weren’t actually killed to make leather per se. Whilst leather may be a meat by-product, its production helps to make the meat industry more profitable and, along with EU and government subsidies, keeps it afloat. Without the sale of leather, meat would be more expensive, or cattle farmers and slaughtermen wouldn’t make as much money and would be less likely to stay in business. And, at the end of the day, an animal still has to die in order to produce that leather handbag or wallet.
What about silk? It’s easy to forget that it, too, comes from the slaughter of animals, with uncounted billions of silkworms being killed each year to produce silk. These unsuspecting caterpillars, snuggly wrapped up in their cocoons transforming into moths, are boiled alive in huge tanks. This is to prevent the silkworms from damaging the cocoon as they eat their way out, and makes it easier to separate the dead caterpillars from the silk casing. Around 1,000 silkworms are killed to produce just one shirt.
Unlike leather and silk, animals are not killed to produce wool, so it is often seen as a more ethical product. So then why do vegans shun it? Well, these days sheep are farmed more for their meat than for their wool. Much like leather, wool is a by-product of the meat industry and helps to make its production more profitable. Almost every sheep that is sheared for wool will end up in a slaughterhouse. Sheep also have one of the highest mortality rates of any farmed animal, as they are left out in all weathers, often with no shelter and unmonitored, so that animals usually die before the farmer knows anything is wrong. Shearing itself is a brutal process and is increasingly being done earlier in the year, leaving them exposed to freezing conditions, as shearing sheep during cold weather ensures the sheep put on more weight to compensate.
So, back to our original question: what should you do if you’ve gone vegan and you still own items made from animal-derived materials? Well, there are a few options. Some people throw them away, but I personally think this is a terrible waste. Other people choose to donate them to charity shops, animal shelters, or someone else who can make use of them. But what if you can’t afford to do this, or you have items of sentimental value? Well, a sensible approach might be to hold on to them for now and replace them with animal-free versions as and when they wear out. After all, they’ve already been paid for, so getting rid of them won’t help to reduce demand for such products.
When it comes to buying cruelty-free alternatives, there are plenty of options. Most clothing shops will have items made from plant-based or synthetic fibres, even knitted cotton jumpers, so there’s no need to go naked. Finding substitutes for leather shoes, belts and handbags can be a little more tricky, but it’s not impossible. Many discount shoe shops and clothing stores have leather-style items that are actually made from synthetic materials, simply because they are cheaper to make, and there are a number of online companies that can deliver high quality vegan shoes and accessories right to your door, including: