Lettuce wore really cool sneakers. He told me his footwear was leather-free from a specialist vegan shoe brand called Ethical WARES. Despite being a fellow cash-strapped student, Lettuce made a lot of effort with his vegan consumerism. Lettuce was a gentle and humble soul. He would often be found in deep thought. You could tell he spent hours observing and reading books about philosophy and political science.
Most students considered Lettuce to be a bit of an odd egg for the fact he ate neither eggs or dairy.
Despite this, when anyone questioned Lettuce on why he was vegan he would choose his words carefully, and patiently attempt to explain. Animal rights, land usage, good nutrition where just a few of his many considered reasons.
If you asked most people on the street if they’d like to live in a better world, you’d likely find they would. However, developing a belief of a better world out of theory usually goes two ways: into either a heated debate, or a daring daydream into utopia. Sometimes, just sometimes, it turns into positive practical action.
Since my university days two decades ago, veganism has reached the mainstream vernacular. Plant-based living has become synonymous with sustainable, healthy and cool. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans increased four-fold from 2014 to 2019 in the UK, and vegans and vegetarians now make up a quarter of the British population. Embracing a vegan lifestyle goes beyond what we put on our plate – it also impacts our beauty regime and what we wear. We begin to build a deeper connection with the natural world and the global society we live in.
I’ve been thinking about Lettuce a lot more these days. He was living in the future before the rest of us. I wonder if he feels the noise surrounding veganism is genuine and permanent. Like my friend Lettuce, Denise and Mike Newman were also living in the future.
During his youth, Mike attended a protest about live animal exports in Brighlingsea before heading straight up to London to join a demonstration against Murdoch’s plans to crush the print unions at Wapping. That’s just the kind of chap he was.
His partner Denise were no different. They had both always been involved in conservation and political campaigning. Brought up in Essex, the memory of the miners’ strike of the 1980s remains firmly planted in their minds, and is what escalated their interest in both human and animal rights.
It was 1993 when they acquired Ethical WARES. The founder had moved abroad and was looking for someone to take it over. As vegans themselves Mike and Denise knew just how difficult it was to secure non-leather footwear, as Mike explains.
“It was really attractive to help put the dearth of quality, breathable shoes and boots behind us all.”
This defined the moment when Ethical WARES became a labour of love for the couple.
“To us it was just a natural extension of the campaigning work on human and animal rights we were involved with and – without wanting to sound pious – just doing our bit to make the world a slightly more compassionate place.”
Dedicated followers of fairness
Mike and Denise moved to West Wales twenty years ago, and since then family-run Ethical WARES has extended its original product base from just two styles of shoes, to over 500 cruelty-free and vegan products, including homewares, jewellery, clothing and toiletries.
Ethical WARES carefully selects its products for the criteria of being animal and cruelty free, and prefers to source British and European products that guarantee health and safety, and fair working conditions. You’ll also find a whole range of fairly traded items, covered by the British Association of Fair Trade Shops.
“Tibet is a huge human rights issue that in recent years seems to have slipped from the level of consciousness that it used to have. An immensely-rich culture is systematically being destroyed, along with the pristine environment of the Tibetan plateau. It’s just heart-breaking, but still the Tibetan people keep their peaceful campaign for justice and the return of their homeland. We will do whatever we can to help them.”
Ethical WARES has never focused on trends or seasonal styles; instead it selects products that meet the needs of its loyal customer base.
“The fashion industry to us is just an empty, vacuous void. With all the problems in the world – does it really matter if you are ‘up’ with the latest fashion? Like most industries, with a few notable exceptions, fashion will use whatever resources it needs to make a profit.”
While stemming from an ethical decision, this has also proven to be a smart, forward-thinking business decision for Mike.
Grounded in values
As I speak with Mike I think about how he’s kept a small vegan business going when many haven’t survived the test of time. Too modest to call himself a pioneer Mike admits that, “It was quite lonely running a vegan business twenty-seven years ago!”
It reminds me of the Edgar Albert Guest poem:
‘Somebody said that it couldn’t be done / But he with a chuckle replied / That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one / Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
I question whether it is painful to watch mainstream companies jump on the vegan bandwagon.
Mike is unperturbed, despite it being “galling sometimes to see the emergence of bigger companies trumpeting their ethical credentials when we’ve been promoting and living them in our own lives for decades.”
“We can’t compete with the larger companies with their sparkly green credentials – so we don’t try. We do our own thing, which is motivated by our deeply-held principles.”
We aren’t all deep and forward thinkers like my friend Lettuce, nor do we need to be reading complex concepts. A step in the right direction is to simply make alternative shopping choices.
Supporting pioneer and smaller vegan businesses truly helps individuals like Mike and Denise make the world a better place – for all of us.
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