Thursday, 6 January 2011

When Ideology Meets Reality

I'm quite an idealistic person. 20+ years ago, I became a vegetarian - not just the sort of vegetarian who eschews meat, but an avid label reader who avoided all animal products like gelatine and cochineal (a red food colouring made from crushed beetles).

Although I kept my old leather walking boots until they fell apart, I didn't buy anything with leather, which was really cool when people used to question my ethics and say "I bet your shoes/belt etc are leather" - which they weren't. With that brick wall in their face, sensible people would shut up and accept me, others would harp on about the cries of the lettuce as it was violently ripped from the ground - 'gosh, I never heard that one before'.

About 14 years ago, I got to know some people who were vegan - at that time, they were campaigning against the export of live calves from Coventry airport and I quickly made the connection with milk, calves and the live export, so I became vegan. Being vegan from a dietary point of view was fairly straightforward - yes the choices were more limited, but we (my wife became vegan at the same time, which helps) just got more imaginative with cooking.

Of course, being vegan is a lifestyle and much more than just food. Choosing to avoid, 'as far as possible' (the words of the vegan society) all animal products, means no wool and no silk. Again, it's fairly easy these days to buy clothes made from cotton or man-made fibres (in the early days, getting suits was a problem, but no so much these days).

So everything is fine isn't it? Well, no. Actually it's not.

You see, I'm also an environmentalist, interested in localism and look to the future (less oil available etc etc) and the problems that might bring. I have some lovely tops made from cotton, but most cotton is, I guess, now GM (genetically modified) and heavily sprayed with pesticides and insecticides - hardly sustainable. I have some great non-leather footwear, but it's made from oil-based man-made fibres which again is not sustainable. They might last well, although probably not as well as good pair of leather boots. Do you see the dilemma?

I have some nice 'hemp' garments, but generally speaking, they are very expensive (in monetary terms). The same goes for organic cotton or bamboo and so on. I'm not a 'fashionista', so I don't buy a lot of clothes which means I can afford to spend a little bit more than usual on the odd garment, but not everyone can and more often than not, the cheap, man-made fibre garments concern me in terms of sweat-shop production and so on.

Of course leather itself is not environmentally benign - the production (apart from the fact that it is/was the skin of a living animal) can involve various nasty chemicals in the tanning process, and again there are parts of the world where leather is produced that have less than ideal production and employment ethics.

Wool is another area where I can see both sides of the coin - on the one hand it goes against my vegan ethics of keeping/controlling animals for mans' use, where the animals are looked upon as just a commodity and I believe that around 40% of wool comes from slaughtered animals. Sheep, like goats, are also pretty destructive on the land where they are farmed. The other side is that it's a highly durable natural fibre that lasts well and in addition to use in clothes, can be made into house insulation and so on - so it can have some good environmental credentials.

Green woodworking course with Mike Abbot

Having said all the above, and as a vegan, I currently won't buy anything leather or wool (and family & friends know all this when it comes to birthdays etc!). I do have a pair of leather work gloves - a builder who did some work on the house left them behind, so rather than throw them away, I have used them on some tough jobs where non-leather probably would have been useless. I'm interested in green woodwork and if I pursued this, at some point I'd come across buying knives that come with leather sheaths, or leather straps that operate with pole lathes - what should I do?

I love the look and practicality of the leather pouches shown below. They are made by Ben Orford - a green woodworker who originally trained with Mike Abbott (Mike also taught me on my 'introduction green woodwork' course). They look durable, should last for years and really appeals to me, but it's leather and I'm a vegan, so I don't go there!

So what about the future? I believe in peak-oil (in fact, peak many things) which will force a new localism onto people and the economy. It will, in the not too distant future, become a lot more expensive to ship goods across the world, and the raw materials for what are currently 'cheap' items, will not be so cheap.

I know vegans (and many vegetarians) who will buy leather and wool and not feel bad about it (they somehow manage to block out the 'bad' bits). Equally, I know many vegans for whom the issue is very black and white - they will never be compromised into buying or wearing an animal product or by-product, at any cost, at any time.

Personally, I can see a time, when as an environmentalist, it would make more environmental sense to buy leather goods rather than synthetic 'leather-like', or maybe woollen socks rather than polyester. But the trouble is how I can reconcile that with my veganism? At the moment, I can't reconcile it, but in the future, I may be forced to change, ever so slightly.

Oh the joys of caring and thinking too much!


Anonymous said...

I have struggled with many of the same questions and my husband and I often discuss how so many of our actions involve some kind of compromise, from getting in the car to buying food in plastic wrappers. Despite being an almost vegan (I eat honey and have some woollen things) I buy meat regularly to feed our three cats. They are all rescued but I realise that there's something not right about killing animals to feed other animals that exist in huge numbers outside of their natural environment. Still they have come into my care and I will always do the best I can for them. There are no easy answers but I suppose that just being conscious and trying to make a difference is the best we can do.

Hawthorn said...

Thanks for your comments. It's so nice and comforting to hear from other people in the same situation.

I have many dilemmas with my life, based around the compromises I make between my green ethics and the reality of living and working to pay the mortgage etc. We have a rescued dog and we do buy meat for him which doesn't feel right, but he won't eat veggie dog food.

Indeed as you say, at the end of the day, I am conscious of what I do, and I do the best I can - my 'best' will vary from day to day, but in a small way, I know I'm making a difference.

Just that some days are harder than others!

Bek said...

Hi Martin, great post - it's nice to know there are vegan likeminds out there!

I also have the same issue with my cat (I've come to the conclusion that pets are pretty unavoidably unethical in most ways and I probably won't have another - sadly, as I love cats and dogs)

And it's true what you say about leather and wool, which I didn't mention in my post. At the moment I will only buy these things second hand, but am open to change, like you.

Thanks for the link! :)


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