It’s pretty clear why many people take issue with animals being slaughtered for food – since we don’t need meat to be healthy, it’s hard to find a moral justification for doing so. But when it comes to animal byproducts, the situation is less clear-cut.
A couple of years back, there was a stall at my local Christmas market which claimed to be selling ‘ethical eel skin bags’. Incredulous, I visited their website to find out how such a thing could possibly exist. I discovered that the company uses eel skins which are a byproduct of the food industry in parts of Asia.
To my mind, claiming that these bags are ethical is no different to claiming that ordinary leather is ethical. But if the animals are going to be killed anyway, is it really an issue if we use their skins? Couldn’t we even be preventing waste by doing so?
The Problem With Animal Byproducts
This line of thought is an easy one to fall into, but it’s problematic. The main issue I have with it is that using animal byproducts usually still funds exploitation.
In the case of the eel skin bags, it’s unlikely that the skins are given to the company for free. They’re almost certainly being paid for, and so that money is going back into the industry. These ‘ethical’ bags may, in reality, be helping to fund the slaughter of eels.
When Byproducts Aren’t Really Byproducts
Many people, including some vegetarians, are happy to use products made of leather or feathers on the basis that these are byproducts of the slaughter process which would otherwise be wasted. The problem is, this isn’t true.
Leather is immensely profitable, and many beef farmers rely on selling hides to stay in business. Leather is a co-product, not a by-product. And as I mentioned in a previous post, feathers and down sometimes come from birds which have been plucked whilst still alive, an excruciating process. Though this is illegal in many Western countries, feathers are often imported from countries where it’s still legal.
Animals Aren’t Commodities
Ultimately, this all comes down to the fact that we still think of most animals as commodities to be used and exploited rather than sentient beings who want to be free. There are some exceptions; it’s unlikely that anyone would attempt to produce ‘ethical dog skin bags’ because people have an emotional attachment to dogs and there would be uproar. But most species aren’t so lucky.
Most of us would be reluctant to eat, wear or use something which we knew was the direct result of human suffering. It wouldn’t matter whether it was a byproduct or not; it just wouldn’t feel right. Would anyone be okay with wearing a coat made out of human skin, regardless of how that person had died? And would anyone justify it by claiming they wouldn’t have wanted the skin to go to waste? It seems unlikely.
On the other hand, most of us are happy to wear leather because we don’t think of cows as individual beings who don’t want to die.
Once we come to recognise that animals are sentient individuals, it becomes much more difficult to justify our continued exploitation of them. Someone who has truly made this connection will likely be disgusted by the idea of wearing so-called byproducts like leather, however ‘ethical’ they may claim to be.
What do you think?