Do you remember when you first learned about Native American Indians in elementary school? You may have learned, like I did, that when these tribes went hunting, they made full use of the animals they killed. They ate the meat, used the ...
Do you remember when you first learned about Native American Indians in elementary school? You may have learned, like I did, that when these tribes went hunting, they made full use of the animals they killed. They ate the meat, used the horns and feathers for tools and adornment, and made clothing and teepees from the leather.
In today’s world, there’s a common misconception that our leather comes about in a similar way; that it’s simply “left over” from large scale meat production. Many people – including vegetarians, my former self included – believe that since the animal has already died, its skin will go to waste unless we manufacture it into something useful.
Well, that notion is wrong. The reality is that leather is not a by-product of the meat industry but a very lucrative co-product. It is produced not to minimize waste, but to meet consumer demand and is often more economically valuable than meat. As this article from The Guardian points out:
“It might be more accurate to describe [leather] as a subsidy. It’s very hard to get any statistics as the big meat companies are under no obligation to release figures, but the selling of skins can certainly be very profitable for farmers (while meat is not always so). Farmers don’t sell hides … out of the kindness of their hearts or from a desire to minimise waste. They are in a moneymaking business and need to maximise profits, and the leather industry is worth billions, if not trillions, of dollars annually.”
The scale is tipping so that more and more animals – particularly exotic animals like ostrich, snake, and alligator – are being killed just for their skin and not their meat. Perhaps even more alarmingly, China – a leading exporter of leather – annually skins millions of cats and dogs, a practice unknown to most consumers due to mislabeling or complete lack of labeling.
There’s more to the story. Some of the softest, most expensive leather on the market is calfskin or kid leather, which as the New York Times points out, “is most definitely not a byproduct, as it comes from newborn calves, or sometimes from calf fetuses.” If veal is a moral problem for many carnivores, then why isn’t calfskin? If fur is a moral problem for many carnivores, then why isn’t leather in general? Cows and furry animals are both treated inhumanely and both suffer gruesome deaths when killed for their skins.
In fact, the leather industry may be even worse than the fur industry when one takes into account the harm done to humans and the environment when leather is produced. Hides must undergo a three-step process to become leather, which includes tanning and usually dying. Harsh chemicals including ammonia, cyanide-based dyes, and formaldehyde are just a few of the toxins released into the environment during these processes. Since the majority of leather comes from India and China, countries with poor environmental and workplace standards, leather workers often have virtually no protection against toxins that result in cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, skin diseases and birth defects in their children. These pollutants are also released into the air, soil and water supplies in communities surrounding tanneries, poisoning people who have nothing to do with the leather industry.
There’s no reason to support leather when there are an ever-growing number of humane and safe alternatives. Brands like Matt and Nat, OlsenHaus, and Beyond Skin not only produce non-leather shoes and handbags, but strive to incorporate recycled materials and environmentally-conscious production methods. It is also possible to find “unintentionally vegan” products from major brands like Steve Madden, Nine West Outlet, BCBGeneration and hundreds more. The quality of faux leather from these brands is often so high that it is difficult to discern them from genuine leather, and their durability is testament to the fact that synthetic leather can last just as long as the real thing.
Even more encour