“Should vegans buy second hand fabrics?”

For many the answer to this question will be simple and obvious, but the question comes up a lot due to the emphasis in the vegan community on the financial boycott of animal products. If the purpose of veganism is to be understood as a collective boycott, then it is understandable why some would feel like second hand leather, wool or other animal fabrics bought from a charity or thrift shop would be permissible, given that we are not funding the industry directly.

There is still some debate on this topic, all I can offer here is my own perspective. I believe that the argument for wearing second hand fabrics largely misses the point of what veganism is supposed to be about, or at least fails to take into account it’s whole message. As vegans we oppose animal exploitation and so we seek to make sure that we are not benefiting from that exploitation in our food, our clothes, our entertainment or any other area of our lives. While there are rational justifications for buying second hand, particularly in terms of sustainability, there is really no denying that by purchasing a second hand leather coat you are benefiting from animal exploitation, whether you fund the industry directly or not. Veganism is a visible protest against animal exploitation, but that protest becomes muddied if we ourselves are wearing animal skins, furs or silk.

This may seem like a point of ideological purity, but I do believe the wearing of animal fabrics has an impact. Firstly, wearing animal fabrics contributes to the normalising of animal exploitation, the message that using and benefiting from the bodies of animals is morally acceptable. Observers will not know the finer points of your justifications for buying second hand, they will just see that you are wearing leather, wool or fur, and that by doing so you give your tacit support for the wearing of these items. If even vegans are not avoiding animal products as far as is practicable then it is far more difficult to convince others that they should be doing so.

This support is not harmless either, by wearing these items we not only normalise their use, but actually advertise it. We do not directly create demand by buying second hand,  but we do create demand in the fact that others see these items and may want to purchase them themselves, and are unlikely to source them second hand in the way that you did. There is an argument to be made that this is the case with faux leather/wool items too, but if someone were seeking out a similar item we have the opportunity to recommend a plant based or synthetic option, rather than having to tell them it is leather and second hand. This is also an opportunity for us to show just how close to the real thing vegan fabrics are, and that we don’t have to support cruelty for the sake of fashion.

There will be people who will continue to insist that it is better to buy second hand animal fabrics than new synthetic materials, and most of these arguments revolve around waste and the environment. However, it is not a case of having to choose between the two. Most items donated tend to be those cheaply made, and vegan items are plentiful at the lowest end of the price spectrum, especially in high street stores.

Wanting to buy second hand as of course admirable, but there is no real reason why that cannot be achieved while still refusing to wear items derived from animals. Of course, buying second hand animal products is better than buying new, and if there is no choice in them matter then this is nothing anyone should feel bad about. If you already own leather/wool items you when you go vegan you shouldn’t rush to replace them – items you already have will always be less cruel and more sustainable than a new item you would buy.

That said, on most occasions this represents a false dichotomy where the option to purchase both second hand or new vegan items is not being considered. Ultimately, this like so many others things represents an unnecessary use of animals; a way that we continue to benefit from the exploitation and slaughter of animals even if we don’t directly fund it. Since animal fabrics can be avoided by the vast majority of people I can see no good argument why they shouldn’t be, where possible, irrespective of whether they are second hand or new.

“What should I do with my old non-vegan clothes and cosmetics?”

Once you’ve decided to go vegan, you end up in a similar position to most new vegans, trying to be consistent in your ethics while still surrounded by animal products which you yourself purchased and possibly still use. Most of us weren’t born vegan, so it’s natural that you own a lot of non-vegan clothes, food, cosmetics and accessories. What to do with these items can present something of an ethical dilemma. There are a few options available to you, but how you deal with these items will largely depend on your personal circumstances and how quickly you want to go vegan.

When it comes to food, it’s important to rid yourself of animal products early on in the process. You have already purchased these items and the damage has been done, there is no changing that, but this recommendation is based more on the practicality of going vegan than ethics. The longer it takes you to stop consuming animal products, the longer it will take you to go vegan. You will continue to experience cravings for foods like meat and cheese so long as you are still consuming them, so the sooner you can give them up and move on to vegan alternatives, the better.

This doesn’t mean the food needs to be wasted though, you could give it to a friend, or better yet, donate it to a homeless shelter or food bank, so that it can still do some good. It can be tempting to just finish off what you have, and while that’s fine, it can tempt you to just not start going vegan in the first place, since you’ll savour those products and remember them as your “last” cheese, or “last” eggs. If you go vegan as soon as you have the revelation that you want to, you won’t have to contend with that as much, and you’re less likely to lose your inspiration by consuming animal products.

As for clothes and cosmetics, things are a little more complicated. If you can afford to just go out and replace all of your non-vegan clothes and makeup now then that’s great and you’re free to do so, but for many of us that’s just not a realistic option. Items like shoes, coats and palettes are especially expensive, and for many of us these represent significant investments. If you need to keep using these items them don’t feel bad about that, again, the damage is done and there is no good in spending all your money to replace them if you can’t afford to do that.

Use the items until they wear/run out if you need to, and replace them with something vegan when you next buy a new one. People may call you a hypocrite for it and you may need to explain yourself, but there is really not much harm in it at all, and it’s a non-issue if there really is no other choice for you. So long as you don’t continue to buy animal fabrics then it doesn’t make you any less vegan. This page on clothing and cosmetics may be of use to you when you come to replacing them. Again, when you do come to get rid of clothes, donate them to a charity shop or a homeless shelter rather than throwing them away, at least if they are still in good condition.

Cosmetics are much the same, if you’ve bought expensive palettes or brushes which aren’t vegan and you can’t afford to replace them, then don’t worry, just use what’s left of them and buy vegan ones when you come to replace them. You could give away what’s left to friends if it makes you really uncomfortable, but again there is nothing you can do about the fact that these items have already been purchased.

Some items are easy to replace, like toothpaste and deodorant, but don’t feel bad if you can’t fully move away from your existing products if you haven’t found alternatives yet. So long as you’re replacing your items with vegan ones as you go, then there is nothing wrong with that. Take time to google the items you already have too, as many may be vegan without you even realising it.

Just take your time and make sure you can afford to replace animal tested and animal derived products before you go out and buy new ones. Don’t worry about what people say about the fact that you’re wearing leather shoes, you have made the commitment to go vegan and you’re moving in the right direction, even if you still have a few reminders of the lifestyle you have left behind. You will get to a point where nothing you own is animal based or animal tested, but it can take many of us quite a long time to get there; it took about a year for me to do that personally.

Move at your own pace, change has to be sustainable to be maintained, so don’t rush into replacing things you have already purchased just for the sake of ideological purity.