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The Disturbing Secret About Your Stationery and Art Supplies

At the start of each new year, many of us resolve to do better than the year before. Veganuary offers us the opportunity to start off on the right foot by dedicating the month of January to dipping our toes into the vegan lifestyle. If you haven't yet made an attempt to reduce your consumption of animal products, you may not be aware of some of the ways in which animals are used - not just the sneaky ways manufacturers utilise body parts in seemingly animal-free food, but also in everyday household products.

Humans have a very long history of using what they have to hand, including the bodies of animals, to create, innovate and ultimately survive. Consuming an animal and using their skin or other organs to create clothing, for example, has been a primary means for some people to keep themselves alive. But for those of us with access to all the resources for a healthy plant-based lifestyle, the question arises: is it necessary to purposefully cause suffering and death? Many are choosing to make more ethical lifestyle choices because they have the means to do so, and the technology exists to offer more cruelty-free and vegan options than ever before.

Unfortunately, purchasing options in modern society still include remnants of age old manufacturing traditions that call for the abuse and killing of animals, despite alternative solutions being available. Not only are many products linked to the farming of animals for this purpose, but the methods to create the products are often unnecessarily harmful to the environment. It is hard to justify the continued use of such items, especially for commercial products that are not necessary to survival. One industry that falls into this category is the stationery industry. Abundant in our workplaces and homes, it can be hard to imagine that pens, paper or art supplies may be linked to the torture and killing of animals that know nothing of what they would become.

Due to popular awareness campaigns, deforestation of animal habitats has resulted in increased popularity of recycled paper products. A lot of products are clearly labelled as being approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, making it easier for those concerned with environmental destruction to make buying decisions. People are realising the effects of chemical pollutants and plastic to the Earth's ecosystems. Unfortunately, here hasn't been the same attention brought to the animals used in stationery products themselves. So as an ethical consumer shopping for your stationery supplies, you'll probably avoid buying items made of leather, horn or ivory and that might seem simple enough... But did you know about the animal products found in these stationery and art supplies?


Adhesives can be made from soaking or boiling animal skins and bones. This is a traditional process that has been practiced in many parts of the world using all kinds of animals. The important part of the process is extracting the protein from the animal parts. The protein for glue production can also be sourced from other animal products such as casein (milk), albumen (eggs), albumin (blood), gelatin and collagen (connective tissues).

Be aware that although you can find vegan glue that is made from synthetic materials, a lot of items we buy contain glue of unknown origin that is difficult to avoid. A lot of items are made with glue and we would never know! With stationery products in particular, look out for sticky tape and sticky notes as a lot of big brands use animals products in their glues, or they test on animals. Plant based and synthetics glues are common and companies are switching over, but often it is not even a consideration unless we question why it is necessary for them to still be using harmful products.


Historically, paper was made using animal products to give the paper certain characteristics. To this day, you will find paper that is processed with animal fat, casein from milk or gelatin from tendons, bones, ligaments and skin. Skin glue is often used to size speciality paper, watercolour papers and canvases to reduce absorbency. If that is something you use regularly, it might be worth looking into what stance speciality brands take in regards to use of animal products . Disappointingly, some sketchbooks are made with animal-based adhesives, even if the paper is vegan. Some watercolour paper is also made using woollen sheets to create surface texture, so it may not be classed as vegan because animals are used in the manufacturing process.

Paints, Inks & Mediums

Fancy some scale insects in your stationery? The dried bodies of female cochineals are used to create a red dye (carmine / carminic acid / E120) that gives the pink, red, orange, brown and purple shades to many processed foods and drinks as well as inks and dyes. Only slightly less gruesome is shellac, which is a secretion from lac bugs that is scraped off the trees that they live on and used to make colourants, varnishes and sealants. Its chemical structure is very similar to synthetic plastics which is why it has been replaced by plastic in a lot of cases. However, shellac is still being used for its gloss and binding properties in some inks, primers, and for wood finishing.

Many mediums contain binders, for example gesso is typically made with glue made from skin, and egg is used to bind pigments in tempera paints. Another medium is ox gall which is used with watercolours to make the paint flow differently - that is made from the gall bladders of cows, whilst their bones may be heated and ground down to make bone char for a deep black pigment.

Pencils & Pens

Artists tend to appreciate the smoothness of a nice pencil, but that may be from the tallow (animal fat), honey or beeswax in the pencil lead. As with many other stationery and art supplies, casein from animal milk may be used as an adhesive binder in the manufacture of these products.

If you are into fancy pens, check out the section above about inks! Avoid pen cases made of ivory or horn, and be aware that some polished tusks and horns may have a plastic feel and appearance that at first glance may not obviously look like the appendages of an endangered animal.


Hair from a range of animals, including pigs, squirrels, goats, sables, camels and ponies, is used to make paint brushes that a lot of artists enjoy using. Like with many of the items listed here, we have the technology to create professional grade art supplies using synthetic materials. Try investing in some high quality nylon or polyester brushes - you may even find them to be more durable than non-vegan alternatives.

Although it is the vegan alternative to a lot of animal products, it is hard to recommend plastic substitutes. The waste and pollution caused by the manufacture of cheap, poor quality plastic goods is a whole other issue to tackle in the battle against wasteful, exploitative consumerism. We will be faced with having to choose between two evils in some cases. A powerful solution is boycotting unethical brands entirely, to show them through silent protest that we won't pay for them to harm us, the Earth on which we rely, and the creatures that inhabit it. For those of us without the privilege of being able to opt out of the system in which we find ourselves, utilising the technologies that provide us with options can be a place to start.

  • Choose a sustainable plant-based option if you can

  • Check if the online shops you are browsing have search filters for vegan goods or vegan sections on their site

  • Check that paper products are sustainably sourced by looking for recycled products or those marked with the FSC logo

  • If you have to use items that are harmful to animals or the environment, invest in durable products that don't have to be frequently replaced (if you can)

  • Look for vegan labels and products approved by vegan organisations (bear in mind that not all vegan brands or products have vegan certification)

  • Check out online lists of 'accidentally vegan' products

  • Support vegan brands and independent sellers that value quality and ethics

  • Email companies to find out if they test on animals or source materials from animals

  • Look into who the parent companies of commercial brands are and check if they test on animals, particularly for cosmetic, chemical and drug products

  • Call out unethical companies on social media, start campaigns and petitions for more ethical alternatives

  • Find existing ethical alternatives that you could be available to you, by joining in discussions with local vegan and environmentalist communities either in real life or online.

This is not an exhaustive list. You can find lots more advice on living a vegan lifestyle (or just trying it for a while) on websites like The Vegan Society and Veganuary. It's important to remember that it is nearly impossible for most of us to live anywhere near a 'perfect' ethical lifestyle, especially if you lack resources to make the ethical choices that you would like. However, when you vote with your wallet, you are not alone and together we are sending a message that what we want is for big businesses to do better because we all deserve better. If you can choose small changes to make in the way that you live and shop, you are setting an example for others and for your future self that change is possible. We are already seeing the effects of this with more and more vegan and eco-friendly options on the market. With demand growing, companies will have more reason to invest in improving their practices and products.


What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have a favourite ethical stationery brand? What are some things you didn't realise about going vegan? Are you participating in Veganuary? Please share your thoughts and experiences, as it could be helpful to all of us trying to live an ethical life!

For ethical stationery from Novel Notes made from sustainable vegan materials, visit the Novel shop.

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