The Secret Life of Vegans: shopping for new clothes

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If you need us, we’ll be buried deep in the aisles of our favourite shops, turning jumpers, t-shirts and everything else inside out, to unearth the pesky composition labels.

“Urgh, I can’t imagine having to check every single piece of clothing before buying it. What a chore.” This was said by my well-meaning friend, as she herself was checking a label to see if something needed to be hand-washed.

Once we’d stopped laughing and eye-rolling, we went for coffee and she asked me about the extra consciousness that shopping necessitates for vegans. After getting a little irate at the plant milk surcharge, on my behalf. That’s real friendship right there.

Read a little, then do a little good, by signing a petition to end the plant milk surcharge.

As we talked, I realised that the things I do out of habit now must have once been an inconvenience and as we carried on with our treat day, I started to notice something — potentially other plant-based folks, everywhere.

You’d think we are easy to spot, but not all of us are adorned with vegan-themed clothes, badges or neon headpieces (the latter is the dream), so I felt like I was discovering my tribe all over again. How did I identify potential fellow vegans in clothes shops? With these telltale signs:

Checking those damn labels

vegan labelsIf it looks like wool, smells like wool and feels like wool, it’s probably — you guessed it, Poirot — wool. Yet, still we check. We love the lines, a pattern, the buttons. There’s just something about that jumper that means we are praying to an unyielding ethical god that it’s a new acrylic, recycled polyester or cotton blend that we’ve not heard of before. And so, with a deep breath and a quick look to the heavens, we turn it inside out and read the label, only to exhale deeply and walk away in disappointment. Some of us also add in a disgruntled snarl (I know I do).

Lots of people check labels on clothes, but it’s the preamble of clearly hoping something is vegan and performing the ritual that gives us away. One of my favourite ever overheard conversations involved someone telling his friend — in joyous tones — “Babe, it’s Primark, not M&S. I reeeeaaallly don’t think you need to check for wool.” He wasn’t wrong, but the shade was real.

Checking the animal-free database on our phones

vegan clothingThis one makes me laugh because I’m guilty of it. Squirrelling myself away into a quiet corner somewhere and checking the ethics of a company, before I buy something. I’ll usually have the garment in question draped over my arm as I furiously deep-dive into the investments and previous social commentaries of various companies. And I love seeing fellow investigators hard at work, bobbed down in the knickers section of a shop.

There’s a serious point here though, in how far do we go? In a pinch, do we vegans buy the clothes that are appropriate for us, materials-wise, and ignore other issues when we need something in a hurry? That’s a personal issue and from my perspective, having a go-to selection of retailers you like and respect makes it easier to panic buy. Especially when it’s for a next-day wedding that you entirely forgot about. Ahem.

Engaging in the big shoe dilemma

clothes shoppingCheap shoes are rarely leather, but that doesn’t make them vegan, as we all know. There are glues to think about as well, not to mention labour. This is where the good old phone check comes into play, as well as some good-natured debate.

When I was in the Dr Martens shop once, I looked at the vegan boots. I tried a pair on and was instantly transformed to the 1990s, when I’d stomp my way to high school (yes, I’m old) in tatty old DMs, listening to Nirvana and dreaming about long-haired boys asking me out. The nostalgia, coupled with the vegan label made me instantly reach for my wallet, until my companion asked: “What are they made of then?”

Yikes! Good question. As it turns out, not a very earth-friendly material and, this caught the attention of a fellow vegan browsing the same section. A quick chat turned into a long coffee conversation about the problems we face buying shoes. If we don’t have the budget for specialist vegan certified options, where can we go?

We came to the conclusion that sustainable and vegan are going to be a rare combination in moderately-priced shoes. We then all went to a local Chinese shop and bought multiple pairs of cotton velvet tai chi shoes. Recycled rubber soles and in-house hand stitching, all for £10. We’ve never looked back either.

Snapping up those secondhand bargains

vegan shoppingThis is an interesting one. As a devoted charity shop rummager myself, I love few things more than finding an absolute steal that has already been worn and loved by someone. It feels like I’m being passed the torch of gorgeous style, but only for a while, as my careful stewardship should then afford somebody else the pleasure of the item after me.

If you see someone gleefully grabbing everything that isn’t animal-based, you might have found a kindred vegan spirit. I am fortunate enough to have met a close friend in this way, because we were both so keen to brag about what we found, to a stranger.

Don’t get me wrong, all those lovely slouchy knitted jumpers really call to me. My brain whispers tempting thoughts about high-waisted jeans and French tucks and despite having heard the argument that secondhand clothing doesn’t have to be animal-free as the debt is paid by the first user, I simply don’t agree and can’t bypass my ethics. And no, not even for the perfect Breton that only had 2% wool in it. Though I still remember it, clearly.

Read more about the secondhand vegan clothes debate.

Sighing at buttons and trims

cruelty free clothes“Please don’t be real horn, please don’t be real horn.” A sentence I’ve uttered more than I care to admit when I’ve found something I like, but the buttons or toggles look like they are made from animal horn. I guess it’s more subtle than a fellow shopper blasting her thoughts about buffalo horn buttons so loudly in Topshop once that I choke-laughed, but still. Why are clothing companies still using these pieces when perfectly pretty and realistic alternatives are available?

This issue presents a familiar conundrum, just in a new guise. Just as with restaurants that have vegetarian but no vegan options and ask if we can “pick the bits we don’t want out”, do we have to think about replacing buttons? Does a little extra work and expense mean that we have a vegan-friendly garment? And what do we do with the original animal-based items? We shouldn’t have to rip off the unnecessary leather tassels, or swap out horn toggles for wooden ones. Should we? Or in the unforgettable words of Topshop girl: “What the fuck’s wrong with plastic buttons?” What the fuck indeed.

We’re a funny bunch, vegans. On the one hand, we want our lifestyle to be more mainstream but on the other, we sneak about, carrying out little sly investigations and hiding our shopping rituals in dark little aisles and the fitting rooms.

But know this: I see you, reading your labels. I hear you, screaming in Topshop. And I’m with you all, but hang on a second, because I’m just looking up who uses animal-based glues in their espadrilles.

Amy Buxton
Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.