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Can Wearing Second Hand Leather Be Ethical? Here's a Vegan's Perspective

Can Wearing Second Hand Leather Be Ethical? Here's a Vegan's Perspective

Reducing waste, lowering water consumption and saving money, we all know that embracing second hand fashion is great on so many levels. 

People buy and wear second hand clothes for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it isn't a choice, but a necessity. 

But for those who do choose to switch to preloved clothing for ethical reasons, there comes a question about whether it is still okay to wear your favourite pair of leather boots.

So we're going to try to unpick this moral dilemma together. I'm Declan, since joining Green Heart Collective I have enjoyed shopping second hand, but as a vegan I've been caught in two minds regarding second hand leather. Here’s what I think about it.

Should You Buy Second Hand Leather? A Vegan View

Here's the Problem with Brand New Leather

So why is wearing leather a problem? Let's start with brand new leather, which involves taking the hide from a dead animal (usually a cow) and tanning it. Leather can be seen as a co-product of farming cows because while they may be primarily farmed for meat or dairy products, at the end of their lives they provide further value for the leather trade. Some might even describe leather as a waste product. If you buy a brand new leather belt, you’re still contributing to the beef industry.

Three Ways Brand New Leather Harms the Planet

  1. Making new leather requires a lot of water, from the stage of raising cattle to then tanning the hide and any finishing required. A pair of cow skin leather boots can take about 12,370 litres of water to produce, compared to 2,494 litres for a cotton T-shirt. 
  2.  Also, think of just how resource-intensive it is to feed the cattle in the first place, then factor in logistics to and from the slaughterhouse, to manufacturers, to shops and to your wardrobe.
  3. Burps and farts. Yep, you read that right. 1.41 trillion cow burps, along with 23.7 billion cowpats generate around 150 billion gallons of methane every day across the planet. Methane is a greenhouse gas which is about 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide which contributes even more to global warming. 

Why I Still Wear Second Hand Leather Despite Being Vegan

This may feel wrong for some vegans, but I have continued to wear any leather products I had before I committed to living a vegan lifestyle. Admittedly that equates to a pair of walking boots, two belts and my old wallet. I guess it's odd that I am still outwardly wearing an animals skin. Am I endorsing other people to follow my fashion and do the same? Yet what about wearing faux leather products? How would somebody tell the difference on the street? 

For me, the animal has already died and has been turned into clothing. I would be hard pressed to find my belt or boots a good home since they're all really worn. I don't want to bin them for the sake of it. So I've kept using them. 

As stuff wears out, there may come a point in the future when I need to replace my wallet, belt, or boots. What then? My first point of call would be to ideally get a second-hand like-for-like replacement that doesn't contain any animal products. That in itself might be difficult, especially when it comes to investigating animal derivatives in things like glue. 

I am sometimes tempted by second hand pairs of Doc Martens, even leather ones. You know what you're getting with a pair of preloved leather boots. They might be a bit scuffed but they're leather, so they'll give you plenty of more wear. You aren't contributing to the leather industry directly, you're just giving someone £30 on Vinted. You're rescuing an item that might otherwise get chucked in the bin. Let me put it to you this way, think of just how much leather clothing would have to be thrown away. For reference, around 1.4 billion hides and skins of animals were used in global leather production just in 2020.

It’s a really difficult argument either way. Do people who buy brand new leather feel good about it because they sell or donate their second hand leather first, so buying their preloved leather jacket is actually enabling them to buy more new clothes? Am I ‘normalising leather’ by wearing it? Do we need some way of signalling that we are wearing second hand leather, only buy second hand if you like what I'm wearing!?

Maybe it depends on why you’re vegan. For me, I love animals and can never justify buying new animal products. But I can justify second hand leather because there’s a huge issue of textile waste. I am deeply concerned about our planet and the climate crisis that is affecting both people and animals. So for me, what is super important is to encourage more people to take part in the circular economy. 

Read More: Why is the Circular Economy Important?

Second Leather Is More Sustainable - Here’s Why

Putting the whole vegan argument aside makes this slightly easier. Investing in a pair of preloved leather boots is going to be kinder to the planet than buying new. Even just logistically speaking. When you buy a preloved leather jacket you avoid having to repeat this whole process: 

A cow has not had to live for X many years, eating X amount of grass, burping X amount of methane, to then be driven to a slaughterhouse, killed, put through intensive processing including tanning, before then being cut to size and used for fashion-making purposes, then shipped round the world. That is just the abridged version. 

Of course, this process has had to happen in the first place to make your jacket, but the animal isn't re-killed, nor does it take anywhere near the same amounts of water or energy. 

Instead, when you buy preloved, at most you have the transport costs of getting the preloved item to your house. 

Every time you choose to buy second hand rather than brand new, you are slowly turning the tide against fast fashion and reducing waste to landfill. 

The Bottom Line on Second Hand Leather

Leather-making is a really energy-intensive process. Buying second hand leather is a way of saving water, energy and reducing greenhouse gases. More importantly, can reduce waste. We have mountains of clothes going to landfill or clogging up second hand clothing markets across the world. 

As a vegan, I recognise the issues with wearing second hand leather. Yes I am wearing the skin of a dead animal. But it has already died. If we decide to stop wearing second hand leather, do we just dump it all? Leather takes up to 50 years to decompose and chemicals can leach out from it. 

Do we really want to bury billions of pieces of used leather clothing that could be keeping someone warm? 

As George Monbiot says, "we are farming our planet to death". In an ideal world, we completely phase out the industrial farming of animals and stop making any new clothes from their skin. We then focus on wearing and using the second hand leather that already exists. At some point in the far distant future leather becomes something that you find in special collections or museums (look at when we used to wear the skin of animals!) or emulated by plant-based versions. 

What do you think? Should we ditch second hand leather entirely?



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