Is leather just a byproduct of the meat industry? If I don’t buy it, won’t they just throw it away?

Leather is “the most economically important byproduct of the meat industry.”1 It has also been described as a “coproduct”2 3, and even a subsidy.4

Regardless of how one defines it, the skin is certainly not a “leftover,” since processing it as leather accounts for about 10% of the slaughtered animal’s overall value.5 In fact, the value of the global leather industry has increased considerably – from US$16 billion in the mid 1980’s to US$100 billion today, but the majority of that growth has been in China and other developing countries, where environmental laws are weak.6 7  (Learn more about the environmental issues associated with leather production.)

The Canadian leather industry is actually on the decline and has been for decades; most of our untreated skins are shipped elsewhere for tanning.8

The profit from leather depends on which animal is being utilized. Most of our leather comes from cattle: cows killed for meat, including veal calves, as well as dairy cows, who are slaughtered when they’re no longer profitable.  Leather is also commonly made from pigs, sheep, bison, and goats.  The soft skin of aborted (purposely or otherwise) calves is considered particularly luxurious; it comes from cows who “quite literally die pregnant.”9 10  This type of leather is known as “slink”.  Often, the softer the leather, the younger the animal was at the time of slaughter.11

Leather processing at a Toronto, ON plant: (visible at :30):

<iframe width=”400″ height=”250″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/GUpSW4COnm0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

In the case of some animals, however, the meat is the byproduct. On ostrich farms, for example, the leather accounts for 80% of the dead animal’s value.12 (Slaughtering ostriches is a particularly difficult process, and a California slaughterer revealed to Virginia Handley of The Fund for Animals that it took him “2 hours of violent struggle to kill a single ostrich.”13)

Leather is also made from more exotic animals like kangaroos, zebras, seals, snakes, lizards, and even sharks, dolphins, and stingrays, many of whom are either raised or hunted specifically for their skins.14 15 Lizards and snakes are often skinned alive as a result of the belief that doing so will make their skin more supple.

Snakes are often alive as their skins are torn from them. It is believed that doing so makes the skin more subtle.

Snakes are often alive as their skins are torn from them. It is believed that doing so makes the skin more subtle.

A common practice is to nail the live snake to a tree or a board. The skin is peeled away and the snake, still alive, is left hanging until they die.

Alligators, who are slaughtered for their skin and their meat, can be raised by the hundreds in a space the size of a typical family home.16 One Georgia farm kept over 10,000 alligators in four buildings. According to the Los Angeles Times, “hundreds and hundreds of alligators fill[ed] every inch of [each] room.”17 These animals, who can live to be about 60 years old, are slaughtered before the age of 2, when they reach 4 to 6 feet in length.18 19

Kangaroo leather, which is considered lighter, more flexible, and stronger than many other leathers, is used mainly for athletic shoes.  The Australian government allows for the commercial slaughter of about 5 million kangaroos per year20, but this number does not include joeys; when a female kangaroo is killed, she very frequently has a baby in her pouch and another “at foot”.  Very young joeys are pulled from their mothers’ pouches, and clubbed, stomped to death, shot, or decapitated.21 Older joeys who have left the pouch but are still dependent on their mothers face the same fate unless they hop off, only to die of predation, hunger, or exposure to the elements.22  The number also does not include kangaroos shot for “pest-control” purposes or for recreational hunting.23   A Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos exists, but is only a set of guidelines, not law.   In order to obtain a license to kill them commercially, a hunter needs only to read and “understand” the Code, and pass a one day markmanship class.  Hunting is usually done from vehicles, at night, far from public view. 24

Some countries, like China and Thailand, even process cat and dog skins, shipping the resultant leather around the world with intentionally deceptive labels. There isn’t much you can do to find out the origin of leather, either, since most labels only reveal where the leather is finished, not where – or whom – it came from.25 26

The skin is being peeled away from this cow.

The skin is being peeled away from this cow.

Much of the leather purchased in North America is imported from India, the world’s third largest leather producer. Investigations have revealed that the industry in India is particularly cruel: spent dairy cattle are tied together via rings in their noses and forced to walk hundreds of miles. Because cows are revered in some areas of India, their slaughter is illegal in certain states. Thus, the cattle from these states are marched to jurisdictions in which the slaughter of cattle is legal. If they attempt to stop moving, pepper or tobacco is thrown into their eyes, or their tails are twisted and broken. They are then forced into overcrowded transport, generally so malnourished that they yield little meat. When they arrive, those who haven’t been gored or trampled to death as a result of their confinement are beaten and dragged to the killing floor. There their throats are slit while they are still conscious.27, 28

The industry’s treatment of animals is considered so cruel that some American and European retail giants – such as the Gap, Liz Claiborne, Marks & Spencer, Nordstrom, and J.Crew – have either threatened to cut off ties or have already done so.29 India’s Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Maneka Gandhi, has stated that the leather industry is at fault, stating, “[It] is environmentally polluting, it is morally awful, and it is the reason why so many hapless animals are being killed.”30

This cow is being forced onto an overcrowded transport truck. She is a victim of the large Indian leather industry.

This cow is being forced onto an overcrowded transport truck. She is a victim of the large Indian leather industry.

Isn’t leather more eco-friendly and biodegradeable than synthetic products?

One might assume that because leather is a renewable resource, it’s also environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. An piece of skin that is not tanned (treated) is biodegradeable, but it would also rot away in your closet or on your feet. To prevent this natural breakdown, a number of dangerous toxins are used in the production and treatment of leather.

For example, most leather is chrome-tanned, even though the Environmental Protection Agency considers chromium waste hazardous. In fact, several studies have established links between chromium and sinus and lung cancers.31

Other toxins used are formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and oils, dyes, and finishes, some of which are cyanide-based.32 Not surprisingly, highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde are found in groundwater near leather tanneries.33

In Kentucky, the incidence of leukaemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery is 5 times the national average 34  and studies of leather-tannery employees in Sweden and Italy found that the cancer risk was between 20% and 50% higher than what was expected. 35

In addition to this, leather tanneries release large amounts of proteins, hair, salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids. And for every ton of hide processed by the average chrome-tanning facility, 15,000 gallons of water are used and 2,200 pounds of “solid waste” – hair, flesh, and leather trimmings – are produced.36

Additionally, the World Bank’s Pollution Prevention and Abatement Handbook states that “the potential environmental impacts of tanning are significant,” describing the “turbid, colored, and foul smelling” wastewater from plants as being of particular concern.37

Countries in North America and Europe have begun to create laws to lessen the environmental damage done by tanning, but in East Asia and India, where the leather industry is booming, and where much of the leather for sale in Canada comes from, environmental laws are weak and poorly enforced.38

What about vegetable-tanning, which is sometimes touted as an environmentally-friendly alternative to chrome-tanning? Vegetable-tanning is actually only different from chrome-based in one way: it uses vegetable dyes to give the leather a “more subtle, muted colour.”39  The preparation of the skin for tanning, which involves a complicated and resource-intensive process, is the same, and though vegetable-tanning eliminates the toxins produced during the process of chrome-tanning, it also has its limits:  being stiffer and firmer than chrome-tanned leather, it can be used for saddles, belts, and leathercraft and leather carving, but often not for shoes, coats, or anything that requires much flexibility.  Additionally, when exposed to water and allowed to dry, it can discolour and shrink, becoming brittle.

Additionally, the production of meat, eggs, and dairy is a leading cause of global warming and environmental destruction, and that should be taken into account when considering the environmental impact of leather

Is it hard to find non-leather shoes, purses, car seats, belts, and wallets, etc?xnovacas-bridgetta-jpg-pagespeed-ic-nz2lk0xy65

It may have been once–but it certainly isn’t anymore.  There are many stylish alternatives to leather when it comes to pretty much every product you can think of! In British Columbia, many of these items can also be purchased at Nice Shoes in Vancouver, Karmavore, in New Westminster, or Vshoen, in Victoria.

Shoes and Boots

Payless, Liz Claiborne, Steve Madden, Nike, Capezio, New Balance, Simple, xmattandnat-hendrix-jpg-pagespeed-ic-sncpqthgtlGarmont, and Mark’s Work Warehouse all offer non-leather options. You can also purchase fantastic non-leather shoes at Mooshoes, Alternative Outfitters, Olsenhaus, Novacas, Vegan Essentials, Veganchic, and the Vegan Collection, among many others.  Many of these brands also adhere to ethical labour standards, manufacturing their products only in worker-friendly factories.

Car seats

A list of car companies that offer models with leather-free interiors is available here

Handbags, wallets, & belts:

Matt & Nat, SamSara, Vegan Essentials, Alternative Outfitters, No Bull, Ethical Wares, and the Vegan Collection are just a few of the Garmont sneakerscompanies that offer vegan and faux-leather options. For longer, more detailed lists with hundreds of options, check out the Vegetarian Resource Guide’s list of Leather Alternatives or PETA’s Companies that Sell Leather and Fur-free Alternatives.

1. Deng-Cheng Liu, “Better Utilization of By-Products From the Meat Industry,” Food & Fertilizer Technology Center for the Asian and Pacific Region, 10 Jan. 2001

2. In Defense of Animals, Leather Facts

3. Jeff Schwartz, Update from the Amazon, Timberland Earthkeepers, 22 Oct. 2009

4. Kate Carter, Don’t Hide from the Truth, Guardian.co.uk, 27 Aug. 2008

5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Slaughtered/Production Animals 2002, FAOSTAT database

6. The Vegan Society, Leather

7. Factbook, Analysis of World Leather Value Chain, 2000

8. Industry Canada, Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing2010-01-07

9. Leather-Directory.com

10. Stephanie Ernst, Pregnancy at Slaughter, 21 May 2009

11. The Vegan Society, Leather

12. Kate Carter, Don’t Hide from the Truth, Guardian.co.uk, 27 Aug. 2008

13. Karen Davis, Phd, Nowhere to Hide, United Poultry Concerns’ Poultry Press, 1993

14. Leather Made from Different Animals, Leather Supreme, 13 May 2008

15. Animals Abused and Killed for their Skins, PETA media centre, 2010

16. Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production,” Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, May 1993

17. Edith Stanley, “Chicken Again? These Gators Get a Steady Diet of Dead Fowl,” Los Angeles Times, 10 Jun. 2001

18. Zoological Society of San Diego, “Alligator & Crocodile,” Animal Bytes, San Diego Zoo.org, 2010

19. Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production,” Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, May 1993

20. Australian Government Department of the Environment, Heritage, Water & The Arts, Kangaroo and Wallaby Harvesting Statistics, May 7, 2010

21. Australian Government, National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes, November 2008

22. David Nicholls, The Case Against the Commercial “Harvest” of Kangaroos, May 25, 2000

23. Australian Government Department of the Environment, Heritage, Water & The Arts, Kangaroo and Wallaby Harvesting Statistics, May 7, 2010

24. SavetheKangaroo.com, Myths and Facts

25. Leather Facts, In Defense of Animals

26. What’s Wrong With Leather?, Cows are Cool

27. The Horror of the Indian Leather Trade, PETA India, 2010

28. Bruce Friedrich, Why Leather is a Progressive Issue, Huffington Post, 1 May 2007

29. Asha Krishnakumar, A campaign to protect animals, Frontline magazine, 1-14 Sept. 2001

30. Vivian Fernandes, Cruelty to Animals Causes U.S. Retailer to Boycott India Leather, Industry Dismayed, India Markets Online, 28 April 2000

31. Richard B. Hayes, “The Carcinogenicity of Metals in Humans,” Cancer Causes and Control, 1997

32. Leather & alternatives, Toronto Vegetarian Association, 1 Nov. 2006

33.  Animals Abused and Killed for their Skins, PETA media centre, 2010

34. Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the United States (Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998

35. France Labrche, Ph.D., Occupations and Breast Cancer: Evaluation of Associations Between Breast Cancer and Workplace Exposures (Montréal: McGill University, 23 Dec. 1997

36.  Doris Schubert, “Assessment of the Environmental Release of Chemicals From the Leather Processing Industry,” IC-07 Leather Processing Industry, 28 Jul. 1998

37. World Bank Group, Pollution Prevention and Abatement Handbook, ÔTanning and Leather Finishing,’ July 1998

38. Suparna Sharma, Kanpur: Chromium Distaster, CleanGanga.com, June 2003

39. Elizabeth Olsen, Can Leather Be Eco-Friendly…Ever?, Ecouterre, 19 Oct. 2009

Leave a Reply