The Leather Dilemma: Environmentalism vs Vegetariansm

Such a loaded topic for today! Let’s jump right in.

I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over six months now, with some exceptions. Like the couple of times I’ve eaten sushi. And the one time I absent-mindedly ordered a “works” pizza instead of a “garden” pizza while in the midst of a 12-hour solo work binge. Still ashamed of that one. But, except for that one, glaring oversight, I haven’t eaten anything with a complex brain in a good long while. Good for me, good for the environment, good for the well-being of creatures great and small.

Mostly, avoiding animal products as much as possible is good for the environment, and environmentalism and vegetarianism dovetail nicely. With a huge, impossible-to-ignore exception: textiles.

If you’re careful, you can source ethical wool and silk, where the animal is treated nicely and basically just has a day job of providing wool or silk or hair. Fine and good, find companies that love their sheep or their silkworms or their rabbits or what have you. Yay, problem solved, right?

But then there’s leather. Here’s the thing about leather substitutes and polyester. They’re completely unsustainable. Rayon is sort of sustainable, when it’s minimally processed and… you know what? Let’s leave rayon out of this for now, because it’s kinda complicated.

So just leather substitutes and polyester. They’re pretty bad. For one thing, they’re often less durable than their natural counterparts. For another, they don’t keep you warm the way natural textiles do. They smell funny, and they feel kinda gross against the skin.

But most importantly, they’re non-renewable. And that’s just not OK.

I guess you could stick to cotton and sustainable wool for everything, but honestly, there’s a ton of things that leather in particular is incredibly useful for. Anything that needs structure, the ability to protect you from abrasions, natural waterproofing, and countless other properties (like the ability to be a winter shoe) pretty much need leather or leather substitute. Now on the one hand, using a substitute means that an animal wasn’t killed for its skin. On the other hand, it means that your jacket or gloves or whatever are going to sit in a landfill LONG after you’re dead, after performing in a frankly sub-par manner anyway.

My solution? Buy the leather secondhand. If lots of people reused leather instead of buying new, we could get good use out of what we have, while reducing the demand for more slaughter, and hopefully also reducing the demand for petroleum-based substitutes. No, that couldn’t last forever, but right now we have enough secondhand animal products to last the world for a good long while. I constantly see leather bags, shoes, jackets, gloves in thrift stores; I theorize that’s probably true most places.

If we lived in a vacuum, that’d be a perfect solution, at least until we figure out how to synthetically produce an organic substance that behaves and decomposes like naturally-raised animal skin. (Gross thought, but the results would be awesome.)

But we don’t live in a vacuum, and I’m in the throes of a dilemma here. I want to buy that XL leather jacket for $10 and turn it into gloves and goggles and mittens and vests and so many things that would keep me warm and dry and happy, and keep the skin from a landfill. And I feel OK with that… I think… But how is it OK to wear leather and not be able to explain to someone else that they really shouldn’t buy leather new? I don’t want to preach philosophy to anyone, but I also don’t want to tacitly preach cruelty. But tacitly preaching that petroleum products are better is environmentally irresponsible, and in the long run will hurt both humans and animals way more.

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that one. Bit anti-climactic, eh? But it’s something to think about. For now, I’m going to continue using leather in small ways when I need it. Right now that mostly means gloves.  I also try to buy real leather shoes. I don’t ride a motorcycle, so I don’t need a leather jacket, and can avoid a huge statement about either waste or cruelty, which is nice. Granted, am I a hypocrite? Sometimes. I do sometimes buy lovely fabric without checking the fiber content. (OK, so sometimes I know it’s polyester, because I can usually tell natural fibers at a touch. Sometimes I let beauty blind me.) But I do my best, and I’m working to eliminate non-natural fibers from my wardrobe.

How do you reconcile environmentalism and vegetarianism?


One comment

  1. Pingback: Refashion Friday: Southwestern jacket | The Five Fs (Or the Four Fs and a Ph)

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