When I adopted a vegan diet eight years ago, veganism was just starting to gain momentum, but it was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now. Because most people didn’t even know what the word “vegan” meant back then, no one seemed to pick up on the inconsistency of me continuing to wear animals even though I had sworn off eating them for ethical reasons—except my uncle, who came to visit about three weeks after I had “gone vegan.” Looking down at the Frye cowboy boots I was wearing, he said that at this time next year, I’d better not still be wearing leather.
I had started questioning my food choices a few years earlier, after seeing my first slaughterhouse video. Until that point, I hadn’t really made the connection that what I was eating came from an animal. It was just “food.” Similarly, until my uncle’s dig, I hadn’t considered the fact that my leather shoes and accessories were comprised of the actual hide of an animal.
This realization is part what I now call going down the “vegan rabbit hole,” when you start paying attention for the first time to all the insidious ways in which animal products are embedded into our lives and economy. On top of being vigilant about avoiding animal products in food, vegans must also vet all of the other products they purchase to ensure that they aren’t animal-derived.
Even though I wanted my wardrobe to reflect my values, I couldn’t afford to completely overhaul my closet right away. So instead, I set the intention that I would start moving in the direction of veganizing my closet. Here’s how I acccomplished it, step-by-step.
Over the next few months, I researched companies selling vegan shoes and bags. During this time, PETA’s directory of companies selling faux leather products and Google were my friends. I bought my first pair of vegan sandals and a faux leather bag that spring, from Vegan Chic, a site that sells various brands of vegan shoes and bags. I paid a visit to New York City’s MooShoes that summer for nice shoes that I could wear on job interviews.
When fall came around, and I bought a pair of faux leather riding boots from a vegan shoe company called Neuaura, I felt that I was ready to purge my closet of leather. I gave my old shoes and bags—except my Kate Spade bag from high school, which it turns out was made of nylon—to friends and family, who were more than happy to take them off my hands.
Wool and Down
It took me a bit longer to give away my wool sweaters and down coats, because at first I rationalized that these animals hadn’t been killed. I tend to get cold easily and was skeptical as to whether or not I would be able to find equally warm alternatives. But then I listened to Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s podcasts on The Shearing of Sheep and Down with Feathers, and realized that I had yet another ethical dilemma on my hands.
I started saving up for a coat from HoodLamb—a Netherlands-based company which makes coats with hemp “fur” linings. I purchased some sweaters made with acrylic and polyester that were warm and insulating, from brands targeting young adults like American Eagle Outfitters and Hollister. When I was ready to get rid of my wool and down apparel, I tried to sell them at a consignment store, but they wouldn’t buy them, so I donated them to a nearby Goodwill.
A few more years passed before I learned that silk came from silkworms. Before that, I assumed silk was a special kind of cotton or linen. The jury is still out on whether or not insects can feel pain; however, after educating myself about the process of silk-making, which involves boiling thousands of silkworms in their caterpillar stage, I knew that it didn’t sit well with me.
Silk had been something I usually only wore on fancy occasions, so from then on, whenever I needed a dress, I would simply read the label and make sure it didn’t have silk in it. Because I know polyester isn’t the most eco-friendly material, I now get most of my dresses secondhand from eBay. For work situations, I have found that Banana Republic makes some great business casual suits, skirts, and dresses made with polyester—I just double check to make sure they don’t contain wool or silk.
Veganism and Wearing Animals
On its website, The Vegan Society states that veganism is a “philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension promotes the use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.” Knowing that veganism isn’t just a diet, but an ethical code to live by, is it possible to be vegan and still wear clothing made from animals?
As someone who used to call myself vegan, even though I was still wearing leather, wool, down, and silk, I would say yes. If you embrace the idea that animals aren’t here for our use and commit to no longer buying new items made from animals then, in my opinion, you’re vegan. From what I’ve observed, people with vegan diets who hesitate to identify themselves as vegan usually don’t subscribe to the whole ethical philosophy behind veganism. And in an effort to distance themselves from the animal rights movement, they often describe themselves as plant-based, or someone who doesn’t like labels.
Change is a process that can take time. Reflecting on my path to adopting a vegan diet and veganizing my wardrobe, I can see that what was most helpful was not putting too much pressure on myself to be perfect or to change overnight. Sometimes setting an intention is all we need to do to start gravitating in a particular direction.
Humbly, I acknowledge that it’s not possible to be a perfect vegan. Notwithstanding all the animal byproducts that make their way into everyday items like computers and tires, I know that everything I do and every consumer purchase I make is having an impact somehow, somewhere on the environment, and potentially wildlife. All I can do is my best given the level of awareness and consciousness I currently have.
If you’re in the process of trying to add more vegan products into your own life and wardrobe, I’ve listed some of the brands that I’ve found to have great options for vegan clothes, shoes, and accessories. Check them—and a few of their products—out ahead.