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Jake's Story: Small Steps to a Better World

Posted by Jacob Shwartz-Lucas on

It’s easy when people seek moral perfection to feel bitter and discouraged by the lack of progress in the world, but it shouldn't be about perfection. If we focus on doing little things like opting for that non-leather belt, we are sowing the seeds to a future self who is more loving and compassionate, not only to others but ourselves. And even if we don’t notice it, these simple acts of kindness touch the hearts and minds of people we will never meet, people who might think that compassion for animals is silly and idealistic, people who might mistake kindness for weakness. But make no mistake; we are stronger for our compassion.

Contrary to popular perceptions of people who don't eat meat, I don't come from a family of hippies or urbanites disconnected from agriculture. Half of my family were West Texas/East New Mexico cattle ranchers. I was involved in 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and even junior bull riding. I grew up wearing spurred cowboy boots and Stetsons. Now I live in Brooklyn and nosh on seitan.

Around the time this picture was taken, this boy was told: "you want to grow up to be big and strong, don't you? Eat that steak."  Like many kids in the early 90s, Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by adverts featuring Sam Elliot's low husky voice proclaiming "beef, it's what's for dinner."

I was one of those (probably annoying) kids who incessantly asked 'why?', infinitely following every answer my parents gave with another why. I drove them crazy by reducing everything to the absurd. Eating animals is one such example. Yet, it actually proved consequential unlike many of my other questions. My parents told me that as long as we treat animals well, and are respectful before killing them, slaughter is an unfortunate necessity for our nutrition. They found a way to preoccupy me, but later I asked, then why do we have to kill cows for fancy dress shoes, foxes for their fur, etc? Is all of this death and suffering in factory farms really defensible in a world so abundant with alternatives?

Despite enjoying the taste of meat, I slowly started to remove animals from my diet in high school, initially forgoing pork when I watched a psychology documentary on pigs. From there, I gradually expanded my circle of compassion to other animals as well. It took about 5 years to cut out all meat and most other animal products. But I did not set out to do that. I was just trying to be a little nicer each step of the way. Perhaps if I had forced myself to change all at once, I would not have been so disciplined. I could have easily become frustrated and relapsed if I hadn't slowly taken the necessary baby steps.

This is how I came to understand the mission of FoeLeather. As an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student, I studied molecular biology, with an interest in using this training toward alleviating poverty. An opportunity presented itself in the form of cleaning polluted water in impoverished areas of South Asia. I was so excited to finally make a difference that I spent days, nights, and weekends feverishly writing a research funding proposal, one that was later awarded a grant from SIDA.

Jake in a South African laboratory focused on creating drought-tolerant crops.
Jake in South Africa (Giraffe and Elephant Obviously Photoshopped) 

The project’s purpose was cleaning tannery effluent (leather production wastewater) in the Buriganga and Ganges rivers in Bangladesh and India, respectively. This is where most of the leather in the world comes from. In the process of this academic research, I learned a great deal about just how harmful the production of leather is on the environment and poor people. I took to cold calling scientists all over the world in search of the best methods to evolve strains of bacteria to remove tannery pollutants like Arsenic, Lead, Chromium, and Cadmium from the water. Children drink this water in India and Bangladesh, wreaking havoc on their health. It also drastically reduces cognitive performance and thus people's ability to lift themselves out of poverty. 

It's hard to find products that have many of the same properties as leather, minus the suffering and environmental harm. Most businesses don’t cater to people who are concerned about animals, and even the environmental harm of leather seems to go unnoticed by most who consider themselves environmentalists. 

So, I've created (a foe/enemy of leather) as a service to help make it easy and affordable for everyone to avoid animal skin. If I can help you or one of your friends make even a slightly kinder decision, I consider that a huge success. I also think it is a lot easier psychologically to give up wearing the skin of an animal on your body than changing your diet. By all means, do both eventually, but psychological research shows us that to really change our habits we need to set the initial bar very low. That first step is the hardest one to take. So, why make it harder than it needs to be? Start by simply opting for a cruelty-free pair of shoes before you try to save the whole world. For this same reason, I don't charge as much for vegan leather products on this site as I could. Price shouldn't be a barrier to compassion, cruelty an excuse for being on a budget. 

I am personally available to answer any questions you have. If you’re looking for something not in the store, just message me and we will search the internet and question manufacturers on your behalf. We care more about helping you take that next step than we do about making a buck. You can make a difference by sharing your stories with me and telling your friends about Together, we are taking a stand against the horrors of factory farming and tannery pollution.


Jacob Shwartz-Lucas