Much Ado About Purses

VeganFriendlyPurseLeatherPostIt’s been one of those mornings where I feel like a total wacko for being a vegan. Was it an attempt at dining out? Nope. Purses. Leather purses, specifically. And if you have no interest in purses or a long post about ethical struggles regarding leather, you probably want to leave now. The word purse is going to be used a lot. Purse, purse, purse. And leather, too. Leather.

Before going vegan I mostly just knew about the dietary choices a vegan makes and only vaguely about the rest of their ethically-influenced choices: no leather, fur, wool, etc. In my early days of veganism I was more focused on adjusting my food intake. I figured I would embrace the other elements eventually and didn’t bend over backwards to eliminate the non-edible “un-vegan” items from our lives. Since then, having become more interested in animal welfare and having done much more research and reading about the manufacturing practices, it’s become more important to me to make new purchase decisions based on that information.

Nick and I have talked about what we’re doing with the leather, wool, silk, etc. items we got before going vegan. Some things are off the table. Our car, for example, feels like it is 90% leather. This is obviously not true. But it would be impractical to, and we have no desire to, trade it in. Our dining room chairs bought just under two years ago are also leather. Sad. But we are not going to sell them and get something else. We can safely say we own no fur, and we don’t think we have that many other leather possessions, except maybe shoes (both of us) and my purses. But we have decided that, while we aren’t going to part with everything we find useful right now – which would make me feel ungrateful for these nice things and would be super wasteful – we are going to focus on consciously choosing non-leather (and wool, silk, etc.) items when we are making future purchases.

Non-vegan readers: this is in no way a judgement of any leather you have. I don’t really notice or mind leather other people have any more than I would protest sitting next to someone eating a steak. Which is to say, I don’t mind. You do you. I’ll do me.

Vegans: I know some vegans would be appalled by my reasoning for not getting rid of these items. (And probably also for that note to non-vegan readers.) They may not even consider us vegans as a result. I would argue that is too limited a view, but that’s for them to feel and for me to come to terms with. Fortunately, I haven’t come face-to-face with any judgey-vegans.

This may seem much ado about purses, but with the exception of a few months when my purse contents lived in a diaper bag strewn among teething toys, restaurant crayons, and wipes, a purse is something I carry any time I’m out of the house. Its function is important. And because I’m, sure, let’s say it, moderately vain when it comes to purse fashion, the look of a purse I use is important to me, too.

Which brings me to my specific purse collection. I have some really nice bags that are – you guessed it – leather. In fact, all but one of my purses have either full leather outers or at the very least, leather straps or trim. This is incredibly dismaying.

My current go-to purse has been a very leather crossbody-style satchel. I love its usefulness. I do not love that it has always made a jangly sound with every tiny move I made or when it was sitting on the carseat next to me. Even if the double zipper pulls were spaced so it was impossible for them to touch. Even if I held them. There was always a zipper pull somewhere making some sort of noise. So annoying. But I have been using it faithfully for about a year. I planned on using it for, what, a decade? Still, I decided it would be nice to have a non-leather purse in rotation, since the only non-leather purse I own is basically all but impossible to keep on my shoulder even when I’m not chasing after a 2-year-old.

My search for a vegan-friendly purse began online. I knew I wanted another crossbody, because a bag that does just that – crosses your body – and doesn’t require any hands is basically like the best thing ever for daily use. I wasn’t super interested in faux-leather, mostly because I’ve had it on bags in the past and it ends up being only a matter of time until the straps start cracking or peeling. I found a brand with zero fake (or real) leather that was also sold at an anchor store in our local mall so we decided to check them out in person.

Of course I was immediately drawn to my old favorite brands. But even ones that were the majority fabric or nylon were, yes, that darn leather-trimmed. I questioned my own commitment to the non-leather bags in those moments, because they were otherwise exactly what I wanted. But I knew that was just the prettiness of the bags speaking to me. I found one that I was certain wasn’t leather and, despite my usual tendency to not ask for help, when a sales clerk spotted me looking at the bag, I decided to ask her if that trim was leather. She proudly confirmed it was leather. I inwardly sighed, but outwardly shrugged. Oh, OK. I’m looking for a bag with no leather. Thanks.

Minor note: I didn’t use the word “vegan” with the sales clerks at any point, both because I’m still not entirely comfortable with using this loaded word with strangers who might only think it’s a fanatical and strange thing, as well as not thinking it would be necessary in describing the product I wanted. But would being that specific have helped or would it have just been more confusing?

I moved on to the brand I’d researched online. The bags were simple. Plain. Even the brightly colored options seemed plain or very casual. It wasn’t really a problem, I just still had those other bags in my head. Another clerk asked me how I was doing and I said fine, without realizing I should have asked her a question I’d been wondering about the selection. So I decided to buck up and go ask if there were any bags that weren’t leather. I did, and got a quizzical look, followed by, yes, the ones you were just looking at, and then she led me to some of the other brands, which, as I had thought, were the cheaper bags. The ones I used to get and knew would fall apart after a few months of serious use. (Not that an inexpensive bag can’t be a wonderful thing. Simply that I was familiar with these particular brands and their tendency to not hold up to my apparently rigorous usage.)

I was later led by the first clerk to a different batch of purses that “weren’t leather” only to find that, much like a couple bags I already own, these still had leather trim. Then the clerk came by with a bag she found that she thought I would like. It was a Coach bag on mega sale and she was delighted by how inexpensive it would be. (The bag I was still holding from before, not on sale, would cost more, she pointed out.) The Coach was in fact a mostly fabric bag. It was a beautiful color. She kept pushing how great the brand was, like I hadn’t heard of Coach before. But right in the middle on the front where a zippered section was, the bag was lined with leather. And where the handles attached: more leather. I felt helpless. Part of me wanted to pretend that it could be fake leather and just get it. Or to reason that, because it wasn’t the main material the bag was made of, it wasn’t a big deal. But that would defeat the whole purpose — as Nick helped remind me. I sighed (again), handed the bag back to her, and said thank you, but I don’t think I’ll get this one. She gave me a look. The look said, “I have no idea what your problem is. This isn’t a leather bag. This is on sale. And it’s Coach. No one turns down on-sale Coach.” I’ve never felt simultaneously high-maintenance and judged for having bad taste by a sales clerk, but at this moment, I did.

So for a non-vegan purse lover out to spend some cash, leather on a bag is essential? Preferred? It’s for sure more expensive. Is it supposed to signal the quality of the bag and justify the price? Asking for a purse without leather must mean you want a less expensive bag and that all the leather ones are too pricy? In that case, should they not be sensitive to the possibility that some people don’t want to spend $$$ on a purse? Also, it seems to me that some people, vegan or not, just don’t like or want leather. So why was I such a wacko for asking for another option?

Leather as “essential” was reinforced when I was waiting to buy my zero-leather bag. It was as if the universe wanted me to write this post and was handing me material. Another shopper came by asking if a purse she was holding was leather. The clerk made a face. No, definitely not. The woman looked at the bag, made an equally-displeased face and said, oh. She proceeded to ask another clerk for help finding a different bag.

I handed the bag to the woman who had been helping me. You decided to go with this one?


Scratch what I said earlier: after this adventure I feel even more interested in finding new homes for my leather purses. Perhaps not all of them. Maybe just the ones I think are awesome but aren’t really practical. Maybe since they’re nice bags in good condition I could sell them. Maybe I’m becoming too much of a hippie vegan after all, and maybe I like that.

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