“The Challenging Reality: Vegan Leather”

Recently, I have been furthering my understanding of vegan and cruelty-free topics – specifically with regards to clothing, textiles, and manufacturing. As someone who never conformed to what most people saw as a normal diet and was considered by many to be vegetarian before it was “cool”, I was thrilled to see the huge selection of food items, personal care products, and clothing that suddenly became vegan-friendly. However, the key word is “suddenly”.

This post will focus primarily on research I’ve been doing and questions I’ve been asking about the vegan leather industry. These questions were prompted by necessary changes to my wardrobe, mainly in the shoe category. Because I am a person who walks almost everywhere, I’m very practical when it comes to footwear. Arch support issues, toe shape, and personal style makes me almost impossible to fit. When I need new shoes (which is almost all the time), I can get stressed out just looking for something I like.

Lately, I found not one but two companies that make exactly the types of shoes I want, need, and love! However, there’s a catch – they’re genuine leather. As a vegan and animal rights supporter, I can’t in all good conscience condone their purchase. This led me to take up a project I’d been toying with for at least a year: learning more about exactly what is considered vegan in the clothing industry. The info I’ve read, heard, and seen is surprisingly disheartening.

The vast majority of shoes and shoe components that are given vegan labels are actually made from plastic. Because plastic doesn’t come from an animal, they can theoretically call it vegan and even cruelty-free. The problem is, plastic causes terrible issues for the environment, regardless of how it’s used. There are quite a few companies – Will’s Vegan Shoes, for example – that make their shoes from recycled materials, including recycled plastic.

While I am very much in favor of supporting people who use recycled materials instead of contributing to the demand to create even more waste problems for land, sea, and air, it’s ultimately up to each individual to decide whether plastic-based shoe manufacturing is truly the lesser of two evils. There is a legitimate argument that plastic “vegan” leather creates just as many problems as it solves. Items made from animal skin last decades, while plastic shoes must constantly be replaced. The same argument can be made for fake fur, which is also (usually) tiny plastic strands made to look like hair. These are easy to breathe in during the manufacturing process, too – which is a frightening thought.

Happily, there are companies that create shoes from other materials. While you might not get the look of leather, they are better for the environment in the long run. Noah’s Italian Vegan Shoes has a wonderful organic line. From what I have seen so far, many of the Italian companies tend to make more eco-friendly vegan leather than some of the other manufacturers currently out there. Will’s also has a line of recycled shoes and clothing. I actually own their Espadrille Slingbacks, and they’re a fantastic summer sandal for me.

The great news is that vegan leather can and is being made from actual plant products, as it undoubtedly should be. Kat Von D’s new company, VonD Luxe Vegan Shoes, is a good example of this. Unfortunately, these alternatives tend to be much more expensive, resulting in a product that’s far outside the average person’s price range. Plus, some brands that are using plant-derived leather make them into designs that are not everyone’s cup of tea and/or aren’t suitable for daily wear. While I don’t know what the longevity of plant leather is, I would be excited to own such an item and find out!

My research journey is far from over – as a vegan, it probably never will be over. I will include links to several sources I’ve used on the “Cruelty-free Life” page, in hope others will be inspired to do their own research. It would be great to exchange information.

As options change and become more varied, I find myself feeling less excited and more cautious. I’ve made the mistake of spending hard-earn money on products simply because they had a vegan label without giving a second thought about whether or not it’s actually good for me, the planet, or the future. As more people become conscious of their impact on the environment, misinformation and “green-washing” has become more prevalent.

Plenty of people simply don’t know what environmentally-friendly, vegan-friendly, cruelty-free, etc. really is. Others think they do but are unaware of commonly-used substances that seem alright at first glance but aren’t. After all, look at some of the things people used to think were safe: asbestos water tanks, white lead face powder, and fluoride in everything from drinking water to toothpaste. (Clearly, someone still thinks the latter is a good idea.)

I do not believe in supporting animal cruelty. I also don’t believe in bad-mouthing or shaming those who’ve made the personal choice to not eat animals but still wear their skins. There’s too much hate in the world already, and I have chosen not to contribute to it. I’ve been living a vegan life for years now and understand the struggles. Some are still with me. When I started, there were no vegan shoes, vegan meat, vegan coats, vegan shampoos, vegan restaurants, or anything like that. Remember those days? What was available was treated as a novelty and only found in a few small places in states like California and New York, where people seemed to have more disposable income. We made stuff from scratch, figuring out substitutes on our own; and many of us still do.

My conclusion: never stop learning. Never stop practicing awareness. Make the choices that will work for you. More than likely, it’s going to take some trial and error. That’s alright; it’s a journey. And above all, never stop practicing kindness. If someone still wants to wear an animal or even eat one, don’t treat them like a mass murderer. Don’t go on social media and start a campaign of hate and profanity against them. You didn’t want them to do it to you when you changed, did you? And if a vegan or vegetarian opts for genuine leather over vegan, consider that they might have taken a closer look and become disheartened and conflicted. Plastic shoes, leather shoes, hard-core vegan, concerned meat-eater, whatever you are – we’re all trying to make a difference, one day at a time.

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