After I’d been vegetarian a while, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with the leather and wool in my wardrobe from my pre-vegetarian life. I had leather skirts and boots that I used to love wearing that eventually made me sad once I learned the suffering that was involved to get those products to my closet.
After meeting bulls, cows, goats, and sheep in sanctuaries who were able to live out their natural lives, I no longer wanted physical reminders in my home of the animals who weren’t so lucky. In feng shui they say that you shouldn’t have anything in your home that makes you feel unhappy, and I like that philosophy. Why keep something that only makes you feel bad when you look at it?
Clearly, most people, myself included, can’t afford to overhaul their entire wardrobes when they go vegan. But over time, I started bagging up my non-vegan clothing items and home goods and donating them to charity. I kept the many items that were already vegan, and I found there was still plenty left to wear. It felt freeing to have my home and wardrobe mirror my values of compassion.
Then birthdays and holidays came around, and well-meaning loved ones would occasionally give me gifts made with leather or wool. It was disheartening to have items purchased in my name that supported industries so full of suffering. But the situation is a tricky one. Obviously, those loved ones had no intention of making me sad. In fact, the gifts were supposed to be an expression of their love for me.
As vegans, how do we express our needs to our loved ones while being conscious of their feelings and respecting our own? I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings that I didn’t want their gift, but my feelings in the situation mattered too. And ultimately, the point of a gift isn’t to make someone feel guilted into keeping something that is antithetical to their ethics.
How do we set ourselves and our non-vegan loved ones up for success when it comes to gift giving?
Clarify to friends and family what being vegan means.
Start by doing the legwork well ahead of birthdays and holidays. Let people know ahead of time, so that they’re less likely to buy you new leather gloves this Christmas. When many people think of being vegan, they know it means avoiding animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. But they may not realize it extends further to include avoiding wool, leather, silk, feathers, and fur. Need help? Share this list of what not to buy vegans for Christmas on Facebook, Twitter, or email.
Teach by example.
When you’re shopping with friends or family, don’t hide the fact that you’re checking the material list on sweaters and shoes. If they know you always look before buying pillows and jackets, they’re more likely to remember that when picking up an item for you.
Make a list.
In my family, we draw names. After names are drawn, I send out an email encouraging everyone to make a list of 5 things they would like. You can do something similar, or make a favorites list on Etsy or a wish list on Amazon, and share it. If you give people ideas for the kinds of things you’d like, they are more likely to give you vegan gifts like an Herbivore sweatshirt, rather than a mohair sweater. If you prefer to make a general list, you could add descriptions like: “I’d like a pair of non-leather running shoes.”
At work, talk to the person in charge of purchasing gifts for the office.
If you know they usually gives out smoked sausages or gift certificates to the steakhouse, let them know that you are vegan and to keep you off the list or suggest a fruit basket instead.
Or offer to help with the ordering.
At my husband’s office, they’re adding a new coffee station. David volunteered to join the coffee committee, because he wants the opportunity to give input for adding fair trade and organic coffee and non-dairy milks like soy and cashew. Similarly, if there’s a committee in your office for gift giving, join in, and suggest something like movie passes, which everyone can enjoy.
So it’s Christmas Day. You open a beautifully wrapped package, and inside there are boots made with lamb’s skin or a down jacket stuffed with the feathers of geese. What do you do?
If the gift came with a receipt attached, you could take it to the store without discussion, and exchange it for something else. However, that will mean that next year, you could be facing the same thing. Ultimately, if this is a person with whom you will be exchanging gifts yearly, it’s better to have an uncomfortable discussion once than repeated uncomfortable gift exchanges every year.
However, I prefer to broach the subject when it’s not Christmas Day. I want to avoid hurting feelings, and on the holiday itself when there are loads of people gathered around, it isn’t the best time for a candid discussion. I prefer to wait until a quieter time when I am one on one with the gift giver. Remember, people have all kinds of reasons that they return a present. On December 26th, the mall is full of people who thought their gifts were too tight, too big, not their style, or not the right color. Gift exchange isn’t unusual, even if the reason is different from some other people’s.
Start by couching the discussion in a compliment. Say something like, “Thank you for the skirt you gave me. You really pegged my style with the cut. Unfortunately, I looked at the label once I got home, and I noticed that it’s made of rabbit hair. As you know, I’m vegan, and I don’t eat or wear anything that came from an animal. Could I get the receipt from you, so that I can see if the store has a skirt with a similar style that’s made with cotton instead?”
What about re-gifting non-vegan items?
The problem with re-gifting non-vegan items is that it can send mixed messages. If people see vegans giving leather, wool, and silk, they could mistakenly assume vegans are comfortable receiving those things too. Plus, as someone who is vegan, I don’t want to contribute to the concept that the bodies of animals are gift ideas.
In the same way that becoming vegan is a learning process, it’s also a learning process for the people in our lives.
Over time, people understand when we gently guide with love and compassion. Now that I’ve been vegan for many years, I don’t remember the last time that someone gave me a non-vegan present. But if we don’t share with our loved ones what matters to us, they’ll never know.
If you’re vegan, how do you approach being the recipient of non-vegan gifts?