Much like the curtain drawn between the behind-the-scenes of factory farming and the end products that we see in the supermarket, most of mainstream society isn’t aware of how the materials we wear are produced. People would prefer not to know what happens to animals in the process of getting them to our wardrobe, but if they did, their fashion choices would likely not seem as savory to them any more.
Why should we even care?
Well, it all comes down to morals and ethics. Like us, animals are sensate creatures who are subject to pain, suffering, and anxiety. To think that just because we are intellectually superior to them should give us free reign to systematically abuse and exploit them so we can have a pair of designer shoes or bag that we don’t really need, is in my opinion, myopic and narcissistic.
You may say that we have been using animals for our clothing for millennia: even the Native Americans did it! Yes, they did, but not on the epic and massive scale that our culture does today, and not just so that someone could acquire a superficial sense of status by owning a pair of shoes with a certain label. Furthermore, just like we know we can get all the nutrients we need eating a vegan diet, we know that there are now vegan alternatives to leather that don’t entail the suffering of helpless animals.
Prior to becoming vegan, I hadn’t really thought much about my shoes and where the materials came from. In fact, I don’t think it ever really registered that I was walking around wearing animal hide. If I did think about it, I probably assumed that the animals who were being killed for leather, like those killed for meat, were treated humanely until anesthetized and slaughtered (note to my readers: never assume anything). This “ignorance is bliss” phase ended when I learned of the horrors in factory farming and decided to become vegan. After being vegan for 3 or 4 months, I remember looking in my closet and feeling disgusted by the leather in my bags and shoes that I had previously been totally unaware of. I gradually started giving away my shoes and bags to friends and family. In the meantime, I started researching places to purchase vegan shoes…and realized how entrenched and insidious leather is to the fashion industry (not to mention wool and down, but that’s another blog post).
The limited amount of vegan shoes out there posed somewhat of a problem, because I was already fairly picky when it came to shoes. I usually wear low wedges or flats, and only wear heels if the occasion really calls for it. Comfort is my number one priority, but also I would prefer not to walk around the city wearing frumpy-looking shoes.
Furthermore, while I am by no means a fashionista, I do have my own sense of style that some have told me seems “effortless.” It’s actually not effortless but intended to seem effortless, made more challenging by the fact that attractive and comfortable (let alone eco-friendly) vegan shoes can be hard to come by. There were really cheap and poor quality, although often cute, shoes that you can find at mainstream stores, and then expensive, couture-type shoes that were way out of my price range. This particular fashion challenge could not withstand my tenacity when it comes to online shopping, however. After years of trial and error, I did manage to discover some winners that I’ve come to rely on (see list below).
Tips on buying shoes
By choosing shoes that are versatile, it’s more likely we’ll only buy shoes that will be worn over and over again until they’re worn out. This helps minimize our ecological footprint and is easier on our wallets.
Relating to my “effortful effortless” look, I’ve acquired some tips on buying shoes that make for good investments, courtesy of my mom’s friend. This friend, who was a big deal in the fashion industry in the 70s and 80s, says that women should always have a few pairs of beige or nude shoes because they go with everything. I’ve found this particularly true for fall and spring. Other neutrals I’ve found to be helpful are black and brown in winter, and gold in the summer.
Another thing this friend said was that the woman should always wear the dress and not the other way around. In other words, the outfit, shoes, whatever, should seem like almost a natural extension of us. I think the more our style authentically reflects who we are as individuals, the more comfortable and confident we’ll be.
My round up of favorite vegan shoe companies
I just want to preface these by saying that I get tons of compliments on my vegan shoes. Way more than I ever got when I wore leather. Just as my omnivore friends tend to be really impressed by how tasty meals at vegan restaurants are, they are also surprised when they find out that my shoes and bags are vegan.
Vegetarian Shoes – Great for practical, low-key shoes. I have their Snug Boot – cozy vegetarian Uggs, Fleur Boot – great for walking around the city in the winter, and Thelma Boot – ankle cowboy boots, perfect for spring and fall.
Unstitched Utilities – Versatile and original eco-friendly sneakers. I wear their Tyveck sneakers all the time in fall and spring.
Neuaura – Vegan shoes that are both attractive and comfortable. I used to have some great knee-high boots from them that were awesome.
BeyondSkin – UK-based company with sophisticated vegan shoes. I have some gold wedge sandals from them that I wear all the time in summer.
Bamboo – Has some vegan shoes made from polyurethane (PU), which is not the most eco-friendly material, but they tend to be fashionable, comfortable, and reasonably-priced. I have two pairs of Tamara wedge boots from them in black that I wear all the time in winter. During spring, summer, and fall, I wear their almond-toe flats. Generally speaking, however, I only default to Bamboo after I’ve visited sites that are more eco-conscious.
What’s the problem with leather, really?
Before I wrap up this post, I feel that it’s important to discuss why leather and suede should be avoided at all costs.
You may be tempted to think there are no ethical issues surrounding the use of leather. After all, everyone else wears leather and it’s something that pretty much never gets talked about.
But just because our society doesn’t talk about the moral issues with using animals for clothing doesn’t mean it’s okay. Members of our culture generally believe that it’s wrong to cause unnecessary harm to animals. And yet we do it all the time with our food choices. We all know on a deep level that factory farming is wrong; however, thinking or talking about the suffering of animals on factory farms is discouraged.
If we want to live in alignment with our values, we need to have the courage to be different. In doing so, we will break free of the dysfunctional patterns in our culture and inspire others to do the same. Eventually, enough people will be avoiding leather that we reach critical mass, and vegan alternatives will eclipse leather all together.
As they say in A.A., admitting you have a problem is the first step. So with that in mind, let’s briefly examine the ethical problems with leather:
- Most leather comes from India and China, where there are no laws regulating the treatment of animals
- These animals are confined in overcrowded, filthy factory farms where they are reduced to economic units
- They are mutilated – dehorned and castrated – without anesthetization, and otherwise roughly manhandled by workers
- On the trip to the slaughterhouse, they are crowded into trucks where they go without food or water, and are often subjected to extremely hot or cold weather. Many die of either heat exhaustion or being frozen to death in transit
- At the slaughterhouse, they are strung upside down and have their throats slit. Due to the inefficiency of stunning practices, many of them will be skinned and dismembered alive
- When animals are killed, their corpses immediately begin to decompose and rot
- To arrest the decomposition of flesh, 225 chemicals – many of which are highly, highly toxic – are used in a process known as tanning
- Some of these noxious chemicals include formaldehyde, chromium, lead, cyanid, arsenic, aniline, and chlorophenols
- The tanning process creates a massive amount of industrial waste run-off that find their way into the air, land, and water
- Exposure to chemicals causes many workers to develop cancer, jaundice, musculosketal disorders, and leukemia
Is all of this really worth it just for a pair of shoes that could have been made with vegan materials?
I leave you with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, which I think applies not only to eating a vegan diet, but to wearing vegan clothes as well.
I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.