I’ve been vegan, or close enough, for coming up on 5 years now. There’s a lot of reasons I ended up altering my already vegetarian eating habits, as there are reasons I shifted away from meat in the years before that. Some of those reasons are complex, like wrestling with the ethics of consuming some animals and loving others, with little other than the societal naming of specific animals as food and others as not food as to why. Some of them are simple, like how I always enjoyed cooking and eating eggs until one day I suddenly couldn’t stomach them, or because I rather liked a woman who was also vegan.
However, when pressed on why, it has always sat in the halfway point between ethics and taste, between my beliefs about how we should treat other living things and how my body feels when I do or don’t consume animal products, never really putting my name down too hard in either column.
In the same period of time that I’ve abstained from eating animal products, I’ve also increasingly devoted myself to carpentry and an understanding of timber, and it feels like it has never been easier to do either. I am blessed with copious vegan options at restaurants and supermarkets, even when I leave major cities, just as I enjoy an extraordinary depth of woodworking tutelage from experts and fellow committed enthusiasts around the world in a range of mediums. As I have leaned into both of these worlds, been an interesting experience to grow these two perspectives alongside one another, and to see their similarities in my life and in the world.
Increasingly, the one thing I have come across in both worlds is an ever growing reliance on plastics and other syntheic materials, and in particular the marketing of plastic products as not only better but as the ethical alternative to existing materials and markets.
It’s a very present conversation among the vegans I know, arguing about the more ethical choice, or who does the most good the most often. I remember visiting Melbourne a number of years ago and, while wandering around a trendy area, coming across a vegan shoe store, a small outlet that stocked an extraordinary range of shoes, bags, belts, and watches, all promised to be the most ethical that money could buy. Early to my veganism, I was captivated and bought a pair of high-gloss black mary jane heels that were my favourite for years, saving them for special occasions and taking obsessively good care of them.
It was lost on me then that when they said that everything in that shop was vegan, it meant that everything was made from plastic. I went back a year later and bought a watch with a beautiful tan vegan band that started to disintegrate after a few months, revealing a rough inner band under the soft, caramel coloured outer layer. So too my shoes fell apart in short order. A short while later I was gifted a similar pair as a handmedown, this time from dark burgundy leather. Already several years old and well loved, I took far less care of them and yet they still look full of life when my vegan pair are only still in my shoe rack because I can’t bear to part with them, even though I can’t imagine they’d last another trip out in public.
This idea of plastic dressed up in a beautiful new pleather coat and called vegan, or even cruelty free, sometimes makes my head spin. Sure, these products may not have a direct impact on the lives of animals but what are the indirect impacts to animals and ecosystems when synethic products are produced, and when they are thrown away? (and that’s if the plastic is even vegan in the first place!1) What is the impact of a vegan item of clothing that falls apart and has to be bought new, when a non-vegan one may have resulted from a direct cruelty but lasts 20 times as long, and is passed down across many years and uses? What is the impact of another manufacturing economy directly tied to fossil fuels when the whole damn planet needs to be getting the fuck off that ride in general?
As I found myself asking these questions, I also found myself entering a level of woodworking interest and practice where I was diving deeper into the materials we use for making and finishing items, and it felt like I was coming across the same ethical quandries. Across my feeds, you can’t scroll for a few seconds without coming across a resin pour coffee table or cutting board, with new “bio resins2”, and the use of synthetic finishes such as polyurethanes is endless across most of the areas of woodwork that interest me most, including furniture making, luthiery, and others.
There are many reasons woodworkers might used poly-based finishes, including that they can be easy to apply evenly and quickly, they’re long lasting, and purported to be more resistant to scratches and stains. However, every time I’ve used a synthetic finish on a woodwork project I struggle with applying something so chemical and alienating to a timber product that was so organic to work with.
Where this first raised a big question mark in my ethical framework was the first time I was shown the alternatives to these options, often the very materials these new poly- based finishes were invented in the last century to replace and usurp. There are the oils, which are mostly plant based (apart from Danish oil, which I believe is made from the Danish3), but as we move into the natural resins and adhesives we come across more and more products that are produced by animals or collected in such a way that animals or insects are undoubtedly harmed. Beeswax is a beautiful material to use and look at, hide glue is incredibly useful and functional, and the more I learn about and use shellac the more it seems almost to good to be true.
Just like a leather jacket, from a strictly vegan perspective, these products would not be acceptable to use. Butut if I view my veganism as an ethical framework to minimise my harm on the natural and living world rather than as a blanket rejection of animal products, I feel like there are strong arguments for their use.
Every time I’ve stripped and sanded back an entire piece of furniture of its thick and damaged laquer finish in order to refinish and restore it, I wonder if instead it had been finished with oil or shellac I could simply patch the areas that needed repair. Every customer in the shop that talks about their big ideas of resin patches and pours I introduce to more natural options options for gap filling, including products like beeswax, or alternative designs that rely more on making the most of timber rather than surrounding it with plastic. As I don my respirator and spread meters of drop sheets to spray the final clear coat on a guitar body, I wonder if the ease of this toxic spray finish is maybe not worth it, and investigate what other options are open to me, and if that traditional mirror varnish is even something we should be aiming for at all.
So what’s the answer? Well I am continuing to try ideas and options for less plastic use in my craft and my day-to-day life, but I don’t have the answers, and I don’t claim for a moment to have the true and correct ethical take on this (and anyone who does is probably either selling you something or recruiting you). I do wear second hand leather and silk, and I covet my thrifted wool jumpers and scarves on cold days. I’m also fascinated by low-synthetics wood finishes, and feel like I’ve just begun a life-long fascination with shellac. In short, it’s still real messy and I don’t think there are super clear cut answers about any of this yet4.
So, I’m interested in having a conversation about what we buy, use, wear, and make, and how these decisions are not only part of ecosystems of choice and potential change, but if that change is for better or worse.
What do you think? Let me know via email or across any of the social media sites I’m still on / that still exist when you read this.
- A joke.