Driving a friend to the south end of town to look for an appropriate shower gift for someone else, I am in the rare circumstance of being in a traditional retail store. Once inside, we agree to go our separate ways and meet up a little later.
Wandering the aisles and enjoying all of the beautiful displays, I find myself standing in the middle of a large selection of handbags. I cannot help but pick up an exquisitely designed bag. The handbag is in medium brown with an alligator-skin pattern. The hardware is minimalistic and shiny gold. The supple material of this mid-sized purse yields easily to the touch and has a tender, “authentic” feel. Upon further inspection, I see that the bag is labelled vegan. Thus, the purse is probably made from a synthetic material derived from petrochemicals.
Because of my early exposure to a wide array of petrochemicals, experience has taught me to be careful about purchasing petroleum-based or plastic products. If any new products of this ilk are purchased, they spend weeks sunning on the edge of our back deck or in the garage to be outgassed before entering the house. My visual-aesthetic sense gets the best of my logical knowing, and I do not put the handbag down, opting instead to cross the large retail space to find my shopping companion for a second opinion.
The store is crowded, humming. Amid the background hum as I leave the section with handbags, I overhear a gentleman shopping with his wife remark, “Look at all of these purses. I had no idea there would be so many to choose from.” Style, color, size, material, brand. The array of choices in one department alone can be overwhelming.
Meeting midway between each of the departments where we had been browsing, my shopping companion and I compare the items we have found. Our conversation is not only practical, but philosophical as well. We ask questions about how we make choices as consumers—the internal and external drives behind what and why we buy.
Considering the vegan handbag in hand, I begin with an internal consideration, “There are my own issues of chemical sensitivity to consider.” Then, switching to an external consideration, I muse, “I have vegan friends who would be in full support of my choosing this handbag over one made of traditional leather. And, with the leather handbags here, there is no way for me to determine, without a lot of research, whether or not the makers have used a vegetable tanning process—not to mention issues of labor.”
Various concerns are raised as we talk about the advantages and disadvantages surrounding my potential purchase. From experience, I know a well-made leather handbag lasts me ten to twelve years. And, although this bag has the look and feel of leather, I also know that, from a materials perspective, it would last no more than two to three years, because plastics crack. Also, stark images of this vegan bag ending up in the stomach of some cetacean are adding to my desire to take the bag back to its place of display.
“Why aren’t any designers making excellently crafted fabric bags with high-end hardware?” I wonder aloud.
“Why don’t you just get that bag and see how you feel tomorrow? You can always return it,” my friend offers me a quick solution on our way to the checkout.
Continuing our conversation while in line, I voice some of my ongoing thoughts, “In addition to the issues of manufacture, I am thinking about end-point disposal. With a leather bag, assuming a rare cotton lining, I can actually denude a bag of its hardware, dig a pit in my garden and, over time, everything would return to the earth. With the leather bag scenario, the only issue, then, would be the non-biodegradable material from the bag’s stitching.”
Purchases in hand, we walk out to the parking lot.
At home, I place the new bag on the edge of my bed, then, close the door of my room. In the kitchen, I prepare dinner for my family. Three hours later, after dinner has been enjoyed and dishes have been done, I return to my bedroom to turn down my covers. Opening the door to the room, I take three steps back because the fumes from the new handbag are completely overwhelming. Calling my husband to get the offending item out of the bedroom, he appears to remove the item. Walking the new bag out to the garage, it is hung from the end of a metal, garage-door track, awaiting its return voyage to the store.