Explain, Explain, and Explain again: On “vegans” wearing leather

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?”

Me:  *sigh*

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.”

People:  “Hmph.”

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:

Eco-friendly:

  • 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).

Tie.

Ethically-produced (in terms of labor):

  • Some vegan shoes are ethical, many are not.
  • Some leather shoes are ethical, many are not.

Tie.

Vegan:

  • 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

Size issue:

  • 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

Longevity:

  • 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:

Nothing too shocking here, folks.

Nothing too shocking here, folks.

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:

mm-hmm.

mm-hmm.

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “Explain, Explain, and Explain again: On “vegans” wearing leather

  1. I thank you for your post. Although I admit to not paying much attention to the ethicality of my vegan footwear (Vegan Danskos, mostly), I have been tossing around the idea of buying a single pair of leather shoes, simply because I know there are brands out there that cater to my freakishly high arches. While Danskos do a pretty decent job of supporting my feet, they cost $140 a pair and last me less than 6 months.

    • Ann says:

      holy crap – less than six months!!!??? i have coveted many a pair of danskos and have not bought them because they are not cheap and i just couldn’t afford them at the time…but six months is not long enough by any stretch of the imagination – no siree. chris has also got freakishly high arches (like, seriously. mice could sleep in them.), so that’s always been an issue for him. i honestly don’t know if i’m right about any of this…just putting my experience out there! thanks as ever for reading me, though…love your comments!

  2. maxzografos says:

    I agree with the thinking here. And when I say ‘thinking’ I don’t mean ‘rationale’. I mean the amount of thinking that went into your buying decisions. Thoughtful buying decisions are better I think.

    By the way, next time you consider shoes, give me a shout, as I think I can recommend a couple of options that should last for more than a year and be comfortable too. Not sure about high-heels though. . . I’ve stopped doing those 🙂

    • Ann says:

      hehe – they never really suited you, if you want to know the truth 😉 frankly, i’ve never once in my life owned heels, but professional shoes are a must for me. you have no idea how much of my love of fashion i sacrifice in the name of minimalism and veganism when it comes to shoes and bags!
      actually, i’d love to get some ideas…i’ve truly been through the mill – it would be great to find some companies that carry my size, that are ethical in their manufacturing process, and whose shoes don’t look like a direct protest against all that is fashionable!

  3. colgore says:

    I found a pair of Steve Madden canvas flats last year that I’ve worn nearly every day. They look adorable, professional, and you can’t even really tell they’re canvas. They show no signs of wear. I’m not sure if they still make them or not. I try not to go for leather but I broke my foot a few years back and need comfortable, supportive shoes which is always a challenge. A lot of times I’ll shop at super cheap places because all of the shoes and bags are fake leather, but the whole sweatshop and environmental issues come into play. My sister who is also a vegetarian is a fashion fanatic and label whore (sorry Shelly). When she moved she gave me a lot of her old clothes, bags, and shoes. Some were leather. One pair of expensive, leather boots in particular are so bangin’. I figure she was the one who was responsible for the death of the animal and I’m just re-using them, thus saving the earth. Or maybe my vanity is clouding my judgement. But they look damn good.

    • Ann says:

      i used to own a pair of steve madden boots…they were excellent – in great condition for at least three or four years, and completely synthetic. can’t find ’em in france, unfortunately…right now i’m focusing on minimalism – just buying what i think is absolutely necessary, and endeavoring to buy good quality that will last a long time…i dunno what the right way to go on this one is…as with so many things in life, unfortunately!

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