The skin of an animal needs to go through many steps before you can buy it in your local store as a leather jacket, a set of boots or a bag. The entire process involves cattle sourcing (raising and slaughtering cattle), leather tanning (turning raw animal hide into leather) and leather processing (turning leather into goods). Our lust for cheap leather has moved a large part of the leather industry to countries that don’t care much about labour rights, the environment and animal welfare. In this series of posts, Elise and I will shine a light on some of the disturbing hidden costs of leather production. In this post specifically, we will discuss the impact of leather on animal welfare.
This is the third post of this series.
Previous post: “The environmental impact of leather”
Misconception about leather
Leather is often described as a by-product of animal slaughter for meat, but it is a different story in reality. Selling of skins can be very profitable for farmers – for meat, this is not always the case. You could say that by buying leather, you are subsidising the meat industry. Farmers do not sell hides out of kindness or the desire to minimise waste. They are in a money-making business and need to maximise their profits. The leather industry is worth billions of dollars annually, and the profit depends on the animal that is involved – for some animals, its skin is worth roughly 80%, and meat is a by-product.
Which animals are used for their skin?
Leather production has serious implications for animal welfare. Leather is seen as a resource, and the individuals behind the skin are objectified and forgotten. It is estimated that over one billion animals are slaughtered for their skin worldwide every year. While cows provide most of the leather we use, there is an increasing demand for more exotic varieties of leather, including leather from pigs, goats, sheep, horses, deer, kangaroos, ostriches, crocodiles, snakes, stingrays, sharks, dogs, cats, and so forth. Even baby animals cannot escape the leather industry. The softest, most luxurious leathers come from the skin of newborn or even unborn (early to medium stage foetus, called ‘slinks’) calves and lambs – often cut prematurely out of their mother’s wombs. The skin of such young animals is particularly wanted for its softness and suppleness and is widely used to make boots, bags, and other luxury fashion items.
The origin of leather
A significant amount of leather is imported from countries where animal welfare laws are minimal or even non-existent – some having shocking records of animal cruelty. China is the world’s largest exporter of leather and is known for killing millions of cats and dogs for their meat and skin every year. Chinese leather producers have been known for deliberately selling dog and cat leather as cheap lamb leather on the global market. Because there is no requirement to label leather products, it is virtually impossible to tell where and from what type of animal the leather comes from.
Animal use and abuse
The abusive treatment of animals raised for leather is well documented. Even though cows are considered sacred beings in India, its leather trade is one of the biggest in the world. Because many provinces forbid the killing of cows, they are marched to their slaughter and die in brutal ways in neighbouring provinces and countries such as Bangladesh. PETA has documented the cruel journey of these animals, which are forced to walk hundreds of kilometres. Exhausted animals often get beaten, their tail-bones broken, and are tortured by rubbing tobacco and chilli into their eyes to keep them moving.
Animal welfare problems in the leather industry are not limited to India and China alone. All around the globe, raised animals need to endure the horrors of factory farming. Animals often live in cramped conditions and undergo painful medical procedures such as castration, de-horning, tail docking, branding, tagging and mulesing (cutting away wool-bearing skin from around the breech and tail of a lamb to prevent infection by myiasis). In the end, all animals who are used for leather have to face the slaughterhouse after only a fraction of their natural lifespan. PETA investigations found that animals in slaughterhouses routinely have their throats cut, and some are even skinned and dismembered while still conscious.
Ethics and leather
We find it odd that the demand for organic or free-range meats is rising but that most people still happily buy cheap leather. Some people won’t eat a steak from an animal that had a miserable life but still wear its leather. Given that most leather comes from countries with animal welfare at the bottom of their priority list don’t imagine that your pair of leather shoes previously lived a happy life.
Animals that are raised for their skin solely are often raised under deplorable conditions and are killed in brutal ways – crocodiles blown up by air or water while they are fully conscious, live snakes that are nailed to trees and stripped from their skin, decapitation of kangaroos, and plucking of ostriches, to name a few. Exotic skin or not, there is no sustainable and ethical way to source it from an animal. All animals are conscious beings that value their own life more than you value your leather accessories. Even when animals lived a long and happy life, they did not sign an agreement and offered their skin for us to wear. Who are we to decide what happens to the skin of an individual? And who are we to challenge our customers to buy two handbags instead of one if you can’t choose between the skin of a baby calf or a baby lamb with the statement: “Can’t choose? Get both, you only live once!” – which is a perfect example of the way we objectify other living beings.
There are plenty of alternatives to leather that are both cruelty-free and more sustainable. The market for such materials is increasing rapidly. Many companies sell fashion items made from plant-based fabrics or natural or recycled materials with the same feel and characteristics as leather. Materials such as Piñatex (based on discarded pineapple leaves), Palm Leather, Mylo (mycelium based) or cactus leather consist of plant-based fibres that are often enhanced with PU, PVC or PLA based resins. Of course, most plastics used in leather alternatives have environmental problems of their own, which we will discuss in future posts. According to the Higg Material Sustainability Index – a comprehensive tool that measures the environmental impacts (leaving out animal welfare) of all used materials in the fashion industry – these alternative options are still the most environmentally friendly option to go with.
Before one replies that leather is biodegradable and is therefore superior to plastic alternatives, consider that archaeologists often find leather items dating back many thousands of years – which is an extremely long time in a landfill.
Global leather consumption is harming our environment and is diminishing the lives of many living beings on this planet. We believe that this is not something we should not turn a blind eye to. As emphasized before, we believe that there is no necessity for us to wear someone’s skin because there are many alternatives that have the same look and feel and cause less harm. If our words could not convince you otherwise, please check out the trailer of Dominion below. This documentary perfectly documents how we use and abuse animals for our need, leather being one of them. The link to the Dominion website and full movie can be found on our resource page. If you prefer to read a little more about it first, we have an article prepared for you!
Thank you for sticking by!