If you are an ethical vegan you have probably been told that vintage leather is “your choice.” Implying that other aspects of being vegan were not a choice but somehow used leather is different. I am going to debunk this idea, among others.
Also, I use the term “vegan” because ethical vegetarianism is justifiable only as a path to veganism:
as even organic and humane-certified dairy farms rely on a cycle of forced pregnancy and birth which creates a surplus of calves that are slaughtered for veal or cheap beef. The veal industry would not exist without the dairy industry. Animals used for commercial dairy are constrained to a life of forced impregnation and perpetual lactation. Dairy cows begin producing less milk when they are about five years old, at which point the cost of feeding them exceeds the market value of their milk so most are slaughtered for ground meat, leather or gelatin. In natural conditions, cows live for an average of twenty years. Of the nine million dairy cows in the U.S., one third are slaughtered for use as ground beef each year at about a quarter of their natural lifespan.
To summarize my point, vegetarian dairy consumption, in addition to its perpetuation of normalizing animal cruelty, is directly responsible for its own meat industry and is therefore no more ethical than eating meat, unless it is the transition to being vegan.
First, there are different categories of vegan (ethical, health and environmental) and I have already cemented the argument that ethical/moral Veganism is the parent category. I will only address ethical veganism because both environmental and health veganism is defended on ethical grounds, so the health and environmental wins for not using leather and fur cascade down from the moral reasoning as well.
Let me suggest an uncomfortable thought experiment. Imagine a parallel world where racism is illegal but somehow it is the cultural norm. So you turn on the TV and racial stereotypes are part of the way stories are told. If you want to end treating people like stereotypes it would be a lot more difficult to do it in a society with racial stereotypes acting as the backdrop for ordinary life. What we do to change this world, is to make stereotyping socially unacceptable and not the norm. This simplistic thought experiment helps begin to elucidate why I believe fur is still a thing.
It does not matter if the fur you are wearing is faux or real, what matters is that it has the appearance of real fur. If we collectively act in a way that says there is value in the appearance of fur – just as if saying that there is value in the appearance of sexism, racism or homophobia, is to morally support the social acceptability of these attitudes – we are giving fur social and cultural capital by using anything that looks like fur. If the use of fur is wrong then how can symbolically reinforcing its status and value by wearing faux fur make it right?
The same goes for anything that looks like leather and anything that has the appearance of meat. If sentient beings are valuable as ends in themselves and not as means to an end, then every time we even symbolically frame them as means, we increase the social value of reducing beings to objects. This is why fur is still a thing. When you wear imitation fur you are inadvertently categorizing real fur as clothing, and in that validation is the flattery that says real fur is valuable and good, not in the least because it is being imitated. When it comes to culture, imitation is flattery and flattery is an act of aspiration. The same is true for imitating meat and dairy.
If reducing lives to objects for nutritional use is morally reprehensible, then reinforcing the norm that “real food” should look and taste like meat by eating fake meat, shares the same moral responsibility as actually eating it.
We cannot change the world into a peaceful and sustainable place by symbolically eating meat even though we are not actually doing it, any more than we could eradicate sexism by conforming to sexist norms while not actively oppressing women.
Finally, I would like to touch on the often cited condition of “honoring them” by not “wasting” used and vintage fur or leather. Simply put, if you go down the path of thinking a leather chair or vintage fur-lined coat is useful and throwing it away is “a waste”, you are conforming to the ideology that uses are more important than dignity. Victims of rape or murder are not honored by us using, and thereby endorsing the very things that motivated these atrocities. To honor them, remember their life in ways that do not demean them still more. Put another way, the horrific indignity of slavery is not made just, because of the use to which the enslaved are put. No use can make the artifacts of immorality anything but corrupt and useful only for perpetuating the social acceptability of reducing beings to objects, which makes: leather, fake leather, so called vegan leather, fur, faux fur, meat and imitation meat worse than garbage.