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When you go vegan, the way you eat changes. In its essence it’s quite simple: one day you go to the supermarket and you just don’t buy animal products anymore.
It’s not quite so clear cut with clothing.
There is often discussion around whether or not vegans should wear the animal products they have from before they were vegan. There is even discussion around if it is appropriate for vegans to buy animal products, so long as they are second hand. From a definitive perspective, both of these things are a no go. A vegan is a person who does not eat or use animal products, and that’s a very resolute thing to be.
For a long while, before I was vegan, I had a fur coat hanging in my closet. It had been bought by my great grandmother, and when my grandmother was getting rid of them all years ago, I said I wanted to keep one.
I was dazzled by how soft they were, by the ‘glamour’ of it all: the ‘vintage Hollywood bombshell’ image came to mind and I liked it. When I put it on though, I felt vaguely aware of the weight of what, or who, I was wearing.
I googled what a ‘mink’ actually looked like. I didn’t think about it too much, but it was in the back of my mind. Even when I posted a photo of myself wearing it, I felt the need to justify in the caption why wearing second hand fur was okay. Not too many months later, I decided I wouldn’t wear it anymore, and thatI would ‘yuck’ if I did.
When I first went vegan, I continued to wear the animal products I already had. My collection of leather shoes was quite enormous and while I knew I wouldn’t be buying more, I felt there was no harm in wearing what was here with me already. I loved them and I’d spent a lot of money on them all, why shouldn’t I?
I wore my leather shoes to animal rights marches and when I volunteered with vegan activist groups. Someone politely said it would be best not to wear them if I were doing outreach, because it would be easy for someone to poke holes in my ethics and in the vegan argument I put forward, if I were wearing leather – vintage or not.
I understood their point and from then on wore them only in my ‘normal life’. I didn’t want to damage the vegan movement with my wearing of old leather, but I somehow still justified wearing it anyway.
It’s funny that at this point, I certainly would never have put the fur coat on. It was an animal, I didn’t care where or when it had come into the world, the coat was an animal and I didn’t want to wear one.
But leather doesn’t look as much like a cow as fur looks like a fox, a rabbit or a mink. I was aware that leather was an animal product, was skin, but I never really allowed myself to truly know that.
It wasn’t until I rescued two cows from slaughter, and I was sitting in a field with them, feeding them and hoping to slowly teach them that humans can be good and kind, that I realized. I dropped part of what I was feeding beautiful, gentle Elira, onto my shoe, and she licked it, that it all came crashing down on me.
I felt ill. Here in front of me was a special and now safe creature that I was trying to foster a relationship with, and on my feet was another cow, who would have fought for his or her life, just as Elira would have only weeks later, if she’d not been saved.
I had put her in a position in which she unknowingly licked the body part of someone dead who was just like her. There was no way I could justify wearing someone anymore. Any origin story surrounding the leather itself didn’t matter, because I finally realized that ‘leather’ is just a fancy word we made up to feel better about stomping around wearing a slaughtered someone’s skin.
Making a change
I went home, I sold as many of my shoes as I could and bought vegan ones instead – some new, some second hand. I no longer was wearing the skin of someone else and I felt better about that.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have sold them – it’s not right for me to have made a profit off the sale of someone, whether they’d been dead a long time or not. If I had given them away it would have taken me more time to save up the funds to buy vegan replacements, but that would have been fine.
I am fortunate to buy clothes for the sake of fashion, not because I don’t have enough on my body to keep warm and safe. I don’t actually need more than one pair of shoes so if I wanted to buy more I could have waited until I could afford it.
At this point, I still didn’t have a fully-vegan wardrobe. I still had a few silk things, I still had a fair amount of wool. I justified these as being okay because unlike leather they weren’t part of a dead body, but a ‘by-product’.
Interesting that it’s the same argument I made about consuming dairy when I was only vegetarian, yet I didn’t realize the irony of that. I also was yet to learn that the wool industry is in fact a slaughter industry.
Again, it took having the reality of who I was wearing being put right under my nose before I made another change. I was fostering a rescue lamb for the first time. We were lying together by a fireplace, happy and cosy.
I was petting her and felt her tiny, soft, woolly body. I looked at her, then my hand, then the end of my sleeve. I was wearing a jumper made of wool. Again, I felt sick, or like I’d been punched in the gut. Again, I realized I just couldn’t be wearing part of someone, especially when that part of someone got to me because of large amount of suffering.
At that point, I gave away all the animal products in my wardrobe that I had left. I’d finally got the message.
More than a year later, I found myself in a second hand store in Berlin. You could fill a basket, and based on a colourcoded system they had, you could basically buy by weight. There was a tartan skirt I liked.
I checked the tag, and it was made of wool. I’d been thinking a lot more about sustainability in the last months, and the question arose again: is it okay for me to wear this? I looked at it from the perspective of sustainability: This piece of clothing already exists. A lot of clothing made from animals already exists. What do we do with it all if we don’t wear it? Is it worse to buy new things?
I sat in that store for about 45 minutes having a think. I no longer took consumption of clothing in general lightly, and I wanted to be very sure what was right was represented in my actions.
Huddled in the corner, I played out lots of hypothetical situations in which I could be for or against wearing second hand animal products. Would I wear human skin, or a woven human hair jumper if it were vintage?
No, no question about it. I would never do that, because to do so would be to disrespect the human who was killed or exploited for that garment. Because it would promote the wearing of humans. Because it would normalize it. I got up and left the store. I did buy some second hand things, just not animal products: I’m very pro-vintage, just not if there is a ‘someone’ involved in what (or who) I am wearing.
No animal products
I now sit firmly cemented in the position that I don’t wear animal products because animals are not ours to wear. When we wear animals we perpetuate the idea that they are commodities, or objects that we can use and bend to our will. They are not.
Animals are sentient beings with complex personal lives that we cannot fully understand ourselves, but which we know are like our own in many ways.
If I wear something with an animal origin, I reduce that animal to a material, and that is not something I am willing to accept. It is not something I see as morally justifiable.