One of the things people probably find most annoying about vegetarians is how much we talk about being vegetarian. I know I can’t speak for my fellow veggies about it, but for my part, this is unavoidable for a few important reasons, aside from the fact that I care a lot about animals and consequently want to share that love with the world. These are as follows:
- We eat. And we often eat with others. Whether they know us or not, and no matter for how long, the subject comes up. Most often, not of our own volition.
- Our friends and family often share our lifestyle with new friends in our presence as a conversation-starter.
- We need animal-related information constantly. So we read ingredients and we web-search animal-friendly brands, but we do have to ask once in a while: Is this cooked in butter or olive oil? Do you carry non-leather shoes? etc.
That last thing – the bit about the leather shoes – that’s a touchy one. I remember when I first became vegan, how scrutinized I always felt by people who were becoming newly aware of this part of me.
People: “So you don’t eat dairy, right? Because you know, vegans aren’t supposed to eat dairy.”
Me: “Um, yeah. I know. No. I don’t eat dairy.
People: “You know that means cheese, right? And butter.”
Me: “Um, yeah. I know. I don’t eat those.”
People: “Not ever?”
People: *eyeing me up and down* “You know you’re not supposed to wear leather, right? Because it comes from cows.”
Me: “Um, yeah. I know. I’m not wearing leather.”
People: “What about your shoes!?!”
Me: “They’re birkaflor*. It’s synthetic.”
People: “And that belt???”
Me: “It’s vinyl.”
I know, gentle readers, that this sounds like a bunch of paranoid vegan hogwash, but I assure you, it isn’t. This happened constantly. Attacks like this – and I do mean attacks, because that is exactly how they felt – were brought on by people of every socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, and age. I got used to it, and I think I have carried myself with more poise as regards this subject than nearly anything else about which I’m half as passionate.
I turned vegan at 18. Some conditions about my life were a little different then. For starters, I lived in California, where there was a Payless on every other street corner. There was also the fact that I was 18, ergo I could have worn paper bags on my feet and they would have sufficed as functional footwear. Thirdly, I lived in the U.S., where there were lots of ladies (or at least a lot more) who wore a size 11. (In all honesty, I knew one, and we swapped shoes relentlessly when we found each other, like our dreams had finally come to fruition.)
In the years that have passed, I’ve moved to a few different countries, learned a little more about plastics and sweatshops (that is, how the former destroy the environment and how the latter destroy people’s lives), broken a leg really badly, bought two pairs of poorly-fitting and very expensive vegan shoes online (including shipping and customs), and (drumroll, please) bought 2 pairs of leather shoes.
Cue vegan sighs.
I know. My friend M said to me, “You know, you could donate them, or you could put them where they belong – in the ground,” referring to the fact that I am, by my own admission, wearing corpses on my feet.
Let me be clear – I realize that the whole world does not equate wearing leather with wearing flesh. But vegans – at least those of the ethical variety – do. Funny enough, in the five years that I have owned those two pairs of leather shoes, no vegan has called me out for it. And, in fact, neither has any omnivore. Not unless I bring it up. It would seem that the scrutinizing has calmed a bit. Hey – the world is an ever-changing place. Just ask Paul McCartney and Wings. But unlike Sir McCartney, I’m trying to live and let live. (Yes. I went there.)
So here’s what happened. I bought cheap shoes. Plastic shoes. Sometimes expensive plastic shoes, but they always seemed to be cheap. They never lasted more than a year – maybe a year and a half. I’m not calling out brands here, because I still have respect for the cause, and I don’t buy a lot of stuff, so I haven’t bought any shoes in a long time. Most of the shoes I bought – in fact, most shoes that are sold generally – are the product of sweatshop labor. When I lived in California, there was this seemingly endless stream of earth-destroying, sweatshop-produced shoes, but they fit and no animal was killed in their production, unless one counts the secondary impacts of pollution and what have you. But that gets complicated and it’s certainly not measurable. Let’s stick with what we know:
- Plastic shoes pollute. A lot.
- I recently learned that leather shoes pollute just as much.
- Canvas shoes are not in the running because they cannot be worn in the snow, do not look professional, and wear out rather quickly (just ask the roughly 16 pairs of Chuck Taylors I went through in high school).
Ethically-produced (in terms of labor):
- Some vegan shoes are ethical, many are not.
- Some leather shoes are ethical, many are not.
- Leather shoes are most often made from the skin of beef cows, but quite often include swine and canine.
- Plastic shoes had nothing (directly or indirectly) to do with the killing of any animal anywhere at any time.
Plastic Shoes +1
Quality vs. Cost:
- Well constructed, comfortable plastic shoes are difficult to find, even if I pay a lot.
- Well constructed, comfortable leather shoes are everywhere.
Leather Shoes +1
- Plastic shoes do come in my size, but are very hard to find.
- Leather shoes definitely come in my size.
- -0.5 to the winner owing to the fact that I do have unusually large feet.
Leather Shoes +0.5
- Plastic shoes will almost never last more than a year or two at best.
- Leather shoes can last a decade if they’re looked after properly.
Leather Shoes +1
One year, for my birthday, Chris decided to buy me shoes and go with me to find them (at my request). Foolish boy. We spent the whole day – literally more than six hours, walking the streets of London in the most shoe-shop-strewn places possible, failing at absolutely every turn to find a single pair of size 11 (that’s UK size 10; EU size 42) vegan shoes. Forget about ethical. We went into not less than 30 shops. I’m not exaggerating. I think I tried on two pairs of shoes, both of them too small. And my feet were killing me by the end of the day.
That was a while ago. Let me show you something that happened today. There is this company called Beyond Skin who carry a reasonably decent selection of vegan shoes…I did a search for size 41, and this is what came up:
Note that there are four freaking pages of shoes here for my size 41 sisters to enjoy mulling through. Transversely, when I did a search for size 42, this is what came up:
No surprise there, then.
I am vegan, and I own two pairs of leather shoes. One is a pair of Birkenstock Boots – Footprints, actually, one of their side brands – and the other is a pair of Birkenstock mary-janes (the Paris, no longer, to my knowledge, manufactured). I have had the zippers on the former fixed once (60€), and the soles on the latter replaced twice (£10 & 15€, respectively). Both are in excellent condition, and I’m hoping both will last another few years.
I do not believe in wearing leather, but I do not believe in wearing petroleum, either. I wish ethically produced vegan shoes of reasonably decent quality and comfort were more readily available in my size, but they aren’t. This is not about making excuses, but it is about acknowledging that nothing is ever simple or black and white, including the positions we take about which we feel passionately.
I do not feel guilty about my two pairs of leather shoes, and I also understand why I need to explain myself. As a dear friend once told me, “Ann, the job of an activist is to explain and explain and explain again.” I might not be changing too many hearts and minds, but it is still important to explain.
*birkaflor = patented by Birkenstock (no, they are not paying me), and quite possibly the best vegan shoe material yet in terms of longevity, though it doesn’t breathe all that well, which is why I think they’ve relegated it to sandal-exclusivity. Incidentally, I think that – in addition to the marvelous arches that played a very important role in ending my foot pain, the fact that they developed and sell birkaflor helped me to justify buying leather from them.