A lot of new vegans still have a lot of leather possessions. It’s important to ask, then, is second-hand leather vegan? Should vegans throw away leather goods?
To answer this, we will explore the issue from two perspectives. Firstly, the view of someone who believes vegans can use second-hand leather. We will then look at the view of someone who advocates avoiding it. I will comment on each argument along the way. You will then be invited to draw your own conclusions.
Arguments For Vegans Buying Second-Hand Leather
1. The Harm is Already Done
Argument: According to this reasoning, owning second-hand leather is ok because the act of cruelty against the animal is already done. Throwing away your second-hand leather shoes isn’t bringing the cow back and just creates more land-fill.
My Response: I find this argument sound in terms of the leather that you already own but a little shaky when one starts using it to justify purchasing second-hand leather. If you already own some leather shoes, it may well be better for the environment and less wasteful to simply use them until they perish.
This is a utilitarian justification, however. That is, the moral “goodness” of the act is judged by the consequences. A deontic vegan, living by a hard rule, say, “don’t eat, wear or use animals”, will find it difficult to abide by this reasoning. For example, the harm is already done if someone orders a steak at a restaurant and doesn’t finish their meal. Does this mean it is ok to then finish their steak? Perhaps it is, but I believe most vegans would say no because there are other things to consider alongside the wasteful aspect, such as consistency of behavior and confusion of message.
2. Buying Second Hand Leather Doesn’t Create New Demand
Argument: A lot of larger stores, like The Gap, operate on a model called “Just In Time”https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/dstools/jit-just-in-time-manufacturing/. This is where immediately after a purchase has been made, a database is automatically informed and a replacement is added to an order for later processing. This ensures there is never an inadequate supply of items and lets companies know exactly what is selling and in what quantities. If you were to purchase a new leather item from a store like The Gap, you would be directly supporting the leather industry, and therefore the animal agricultural industry. You’d be giving the message “I want more of this”.
When purchasing or inheriting second-hand leather, this doesn’t happen. A thrift store relies on donations and leather purchases don’t influence what stock comes in at all.
My Response: This justification is a little stronger. The consequences of buying leather from a second-hand store or being given some old leather for free are not the same as that of buying new from a department store.
It is possible, however, that a charity shop may put out more leather items on shelves if they see they are selling well. This does look like promoting animal use. However, could an increase in available second-hand leather actually aid animals in reducing the need for new leather? Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to know.
3. Reused Leather is Better for the Environment
Argument: Given that the manufacture of both natural and synthetic materials has a negative impact on the environment, it seems only logical to reuse old items.
Polyester, for example, is made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, and in 2013 we produced 56 million tons of ithttp://www.orbichem.com/userfiles/APIC%202014/APIC2014_Yang_Qin.pdf. Couple this with the fact we now throw away more than double the amount of clothing than we did 20 years agohttp://www.orbichem.com/userfiles/APIC%202014/APIC2014_Yang_Qin.pdf and it seems reasonable from an environmental perspective to say reusing old leather is morally justified.
A review of 41 studies https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618305985 found that clothing and fiber reuse is better for the environment than recycling, landfill, and incineration. Reusing old leather then seems to be justified environmentally.
My Response: This argument is probably the strongest but it is worth noting, it’s not in itself a vegan argument. Strictly speaking, veganism is primarily concerned with the rights and welfare of animals.
Veganism needs to ask itself whether environmental justifications can trump those of animal advocacy when immediate action on climate change is necessary? I’m not sure this necessarily entails that vegans need to buy second-hand leather but it doesn’t rule it out either. What it does do, however, is promote the purchasing of second-hand goods instead of new in general if we wish to bring environmental concerns under our vegan umbrella.
The Arguments Against Second-Hand Leather
1. Vegans Using Leather is a Confusing Message
Argument: Most vegans will attest, veganism seems to confuse some people. Some people think it’s an allergy offering you some lactose-free milk, and eating faux meat will baffle your family. Things are getting better though. Veganism is not seen as “out there” as it used to be and is becoming more and more understood in the general consciousness.
However, the nuances of the ethics and reasoning behind veganism are not that well understood. People have a general understanding that it’s something to do with being kind to animals but if you started tucking into oysters, your logic and reasoning may serve to confuse people about the vegan message.
The same goes for leather. By wearing leather, you are sending the message “this is ok” and for a vegan to do that seems contradictory. Despite your justifications, it serves to embolden those who seek to find holes and hypocrisy within veganism.
My Response: This argument holds water for me. It seems important for vegans to be consistent in their animal advocacy to keep a clear message; animals matter morally. Wearing the skin of an animal seems to fly in the face of this.
However, it should be noted, due to the accuracy of vegan leather in replicating “real” leather, to a bystander, there’d be no difference between second-hand leather and even vegan second-hand leather. The same argument here can be used to argue against wearing vegan leather too.
The argument actually entails that vegans shouldn’t wear anything that resembles leather at all, not just real leather. This seems to be an unintended consequence.
2. Second-Hand Leather Normalizes Leather
Argument: Using second-hand leather normalizes the material, which is the flayed skin of an animal that was killed against its will. Giving the OK to pre-owned leather makes the act of wearing an animal’s skin normal. Wearing a pair of leather shoes, in a sense, belies the true grim reality of what is happening.
At some point, perhaps quite a long time ago, an animal with thoughts, feelings, and its own particular interests, was killed, against its own will. Its skin was then torn from its body, stretched, soaked in lime and acids to prevent it decomposing, and then commodified into a garment or piece of furniture. The word “leather” normalizes this violence. It hides the reality.
And, of course, to some, that sounds sensationalist. But this is because we are so used to the idea of leather. Admittedly, leather has proven invaluable to civilizations over the centuries. And there are undoubtedly some incredibly talented artisanal leatherworkers out there that treat the leather with respect. But the reality is, leather represents an attitude towards animals that is inconsistent with common moral attitudes to animals. It is an attitude that says animals are there for us to use as we see fit, and their skin is, actually, ours.
My Response: A lot of new vegans are told they could give away their vegan goods if they feel uncomfortable wearing or using them because it seems wasteful to throw them away. This argument could throw shade on this advice. That is, while you, a vegan, may be acting consistently with your values, you seem to be ok with other people normalizing leather, which represents the commodification of animals.
This argument seems fairly sound to me. By wearing leather, you do, indeed, normalize it to some extent. The question is, does it make any difference? Is wearing second-hand or old leather going to encourage others to do the same? Well, maybe. If you are rocking a pair of suede boots particularly well, vegan leather or non-vegan leather, there’s a chance someone will notice and go out and buy a pair themselves.
What I’ve tried to show here is that there is no vegan edict that can clarify these grey areas. Is second-hand leather vegan? It’s clearly not something the vegan community can give its blessing to easily. We have to think things through and try and find the answer for ourselves. Sometimes, as it seems to be in this case, both sides make some good points. We have to, then, go with simply what feels right to us when we have informed ourselves. The important thing is to engage with the issue, this allows your view to evolve and even completely change down the line.