Real leather, faux leather, or neither? Does it really make a difference?

A common concern among vegans, especially new vegans like myself, is what to do with old leather items (especially shoes and boots) that we purchased before we went vegan.

One main thing to consider is that veganism is about opting out of suffering and violence "as far as possible and practicable." For many vegans, the ultimate goal of veganism is about reducing suffering to nonhuman animals.

So keeping that in mind, the real question is: what harms animals, and what minimizes that harm within reason?

Unfortunately, and like a lot of my blog posts that deal with efficacy of vegan advocacy and behavior, there isn't too much hard research to use to answer the above question. However, with some guessing as well as being generous when justified, it's possible to get a rough idea of the impact of wearing leather shoes, faux-leather shoes, and non-leather/non-faux leather shoes.

See note [1].

See note [1].

As we can see, real leather shoes harm animals the most, while faux leather shoes do some harm, but not as much as real leather. Non-leather/non-faux leather shoes seem like they would be the best option, given their ability to make non-leather and non-faux leather materials become more mainstream and fashionable.

However, it's not exactly as clear-cut as this, unfortunately. The next thing I did was attempt to do an economic lifecycle estimate for the different shoes.

See note [2].

See note [2].

As you can see, the cost over 10 years for the three different shoes are the same. As I note in the notes section, this is very unlikely. You would have to input the numbers based on which shoes you like to buy, how much they cost, and how long they are likely to last.

The final results are basically the same as the first chart:

See note [3].

See note [3].

However, just to show that this is not a simple matter, I'll show what happens when the vegan shoes are more expensive or don't hold up as long.

This last chart is where the faux leather shoes cost the same as the leather ones, but last five years instead of eight. In terms of animals harmed, the added cost of having to purchase new vegan shoes indirectly harms animals, assuming the money saved on shoe spending would be redirected to an efficient animal charity [3].

Still, the non-leather, non-faux leather shoes come out ahead, thanks to their lower price and despite their shorter lifespan. However, I would again be skeptical about the direct and indirect impact numbers, which are quite assumptive-based and aren't based on any type of empirical evidence.

Hopefully this post can help ground the discussion surrounding leather shoes and other leather items by offering some workable numbers and examining the issues that are at play.

See the notes sections below for important considerations about how I arrived at some of these numbers.


[1a]: I estimated that a pair of leather shoes harms one animal, though it's likely a lot less than that. Another estimate is that over the course of 10 years, someone wearing a pair of leather shoes will influence 20 people to also buy leather shoes, harming another 20 animals. Again, this is likely an inflated impact, with a more realistic number probably being closer to five or so.

[1b]: For faux leather shoes, we can probably assume the same indirect harm as the leather ones. However, I took into account the impact of telling people they are vegan shoes, which would reduce the likelihood that they buy real leather shoes in the future. Like with the leather shoes, this impact is probably also much larger than what would be realistic.

[1c:] For the non-leather, non-faux leather shoes, I assumed that they would have a negative impact as they would not only not encourage others to buy leather shoes, but might also help shape fashion norms away from real leather or faux leather shoes, which would help animals the most. 

[2]: This section is really the key set of variables. I eventually ended up with numbers that made the cost of all three shoes to be equal, but this is clearly not very likely.

[3]: The ACE conversion is the number of animals spared if the cheapest option is selected and the savings are donated to one of Animal Charity Evaluators top charities. (A $1 donation is estimated to spare 14 animals from life in industrial agriculture).