Leather is frequently overlooked by people who don't know the facts about the industry, believing it to be a simple byproduct of the meat and dairy industries that would 'go to waste' if it wasn't utilised. This couldn't be farther from the truth. In reality, leather is an industry all on its own: not only incredibly cruel but a disaster for the environment and human workers. Read on to learn more...
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Leather is not so much a byproduct of the meat industry as a coproduct--or even a subsidy. 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. In fact, the value of the global leather industry has increased considerably, and is now so profitable that in some cases, there aren't enough cows to supply it. There's no indication that we're slowing down, either: in 2016, we used the skins of about 290 million cows for leather annually, but projections suggest that number will rise to 430 million by 2025.
The profit from leather depends on which whose skin it is. Most of our leather comes from cattle: cows killed for meat, including veal calves, as well as dairy cows, who are slaughtered at a fraction of their lifespan when they're no longer profitable. The soft skin of aborted calves is considered particularly luxurious; it comes from cows who are taken to the slaughterhouse whilst pregnant. (Multiple cross-country studies carried out over the past few decades show that approximately 23-30% of the cows entering a slaughterhouse are pregnant, and many are in their second or third trimester.) Leather from these aborted calves is known as "slink". Often, the softer the leather, the younger the animal was at the time of slaughter. Leather is also commonly made from pigs, sheep, bison, and goats.
Much of the leather we use and wear is from India, the world's third largest leather producer. Investigations have revealed that the industry in India is particularly cruel: because the slaughter of cows is illegal in 24 of 29 states, spent dairy cattle are tied together via rings in their noses and forced to walk hundreds of miles to states where it is legal to kill them. 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, and they are skinned alive in front of each other.
'...little has been as shocking to me as the train station in Calcutta, where there were thousands of emaciated former dairy cattle, not good for meat, all being used for leather exclusively. Many had collapsed from the heat, some mothers had given birth there in the barren lot, one newly born baby looked at me, pleading for help, as a vulture pecked out his eye.' (source)
Bruce Friedrich, PETA India investigator
An investigation into the horrors of live transport for leather
As the video above reveals, some leather comes to us via live transport. Every year, animals are shipped overseas from Europe and South America to countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and more, where animal welfare laws are poor or nonexistent. They can be transported via ship or lorry for days or even weeks, where they are overcrowded, exposed to the elements and frequently struggle to obtain adequate food and water. Some will be pregnant. Those who survive the strenuous journey will likely be killed in front of one another without even the benefit of being stunned first.
Some of the skins of these animals will end up on the shelves of shops in Europe and North America. There's no way to find out the origin of a piece of leather, either since most labels reveal only where it was finished, but not where--or who--it came from.
OSTRICHES, REPTILES, ZEBRAS, SHARKS, CATS, DOGS AND MORE...
In the case of some animals, however, their meat is the byproduct. On ostrich farms, for example, the leather accounts for 80% of the dead animal's value. Ostriches are raised in many places. (This includes the UK, though the industry is significantly smaller than it was in its peak in the 1990s.) The largest birds in the world, ostriches evolved to live in small flocks and to roam over vast landscapes at up to 45 miles per hour with their long legs and unusual, two-toed feet. On farms, they are packed into small enclosures. They are devoted parents whose chicks are highly dependent, but on farms, chicks never meet their parents and succumb quickly to disease. Without parental guidance, the chicks are chronically stressed and prone to ulcers. They are also frequently raised on concrete flooring, resulting in poorly-formed bones. These unnatural circumstances result in a startling death rate of 67%. Those who manage to survive are slaughtered at just eight or nine months old, though their average lifespan is 40 years. Like chickens farmed for their meat and eggs, captive ostriches are prone to unnatural behaviours, including pecking at the feathers, toes and faces of their cagemates. (You can learn much more about the industry here.)
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. As with ostriches, the meat of these animals is the byproduct--in fact, conservation experts state that the demand for leather from these species is actively fuelling the exotic meat trade in street markets in Southeast Asia and Africa. Health authorities have also stated that these industries--like the animal agriculture industry--put us at risk of another pandemic like COVID-19.
What about leather made from reptiles? Lizards and snakes are often skinned alive as a result of the belief that doing so will make their skin more supple. 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. Sometimes they are starved first so in order to make their skin looser; other practices include inflating the live snake with an air compressor or pushing a hose into their mouth and filling them with water. In Asia, snakes are taken from the wild as well as raised in captivity. The former is illegal and the latter is not, but the industry is so poorly regulated that it is impossible to tell where it came from. 96% of those skins are sold here in Europe.
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. It is also known as K-Leather. About 2 million kangaroos are killed annually for the leather trade; in fact, leather is the 'backbone of the industry' while their flesh is mainly is used for pet food or cheap meat exports. And while a Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos exists, it is only a set of guidelines, not law, and it has been criticised heavily by RSPCA Australia. Hunting is usually done from vehicles, at night, far from public view. 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, as recommended by the Code of Practice. 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. A 2009 report by wildlife ecologist Dr Dror Ben-Ami suggested that about 440,000 joeys die annually after their mothers have been shot.
Some countries, like China and Thailand, even process cat and dog skins, shipping the resultant leather around the world with intentionally deceptive labels.
And as stated previous, 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.
...and human rights violations
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, and in large amounts--such as those used by tanneries--chromium is a major carcinogen which has been linked to increased rates of asthma, allergies, bronchitis, polyps in the upper respiratory tract, and more. Other chemicals commonly used include formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and oils, dyes, and finishes, some of which are cyanide-based. Not surprisingly, highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde are also found in groundwater near leather tanneries.
Multiple studies have linked leather production to nasal, pancreatic, lung, bladder and testicular cancers. In addition to this, leather tanneries release large amounts of proteins, hair, salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids. 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. Because they require so much water, tanneries frequently sited by rivers, where large quantities of that solid waste flow into our water supply accompanied by the multiple aforementioned toxins that cause damage to fish gills, respiratory problems, infections, infertility and birth defects, as well as cancers throughout the animal kingdom. Some countries in the Americas and Europe have made changes to mitigate--although not eliminate--the considerable damage of leather production, but in countries like India and China, where most of the world's leather comes from, these laws are poorly enforced or non-existent.
Not surprisingly, this incredibly dangerous and risky work is performed by vulnerable people--even moreso than slaughterhouse work--and is appalling from a human rights perspective. In the Hazaribagh district of Bangladesh--a major hub of leather production--tanneries discharge 22,000 cubic meters of untreated toxic waste into area waterways every day, and the residents of the area have no option but to rely on rivers and ponds that are biologically dead and 'like a septic tank.' 90% of these tannery workers die before the age of 50, and the majority of the 20,000 people living and working in the district suffer chronic respiratory conditions, skin diseases and even destruction of the nasal septum.
'I have between six and eight patients a week from tanneries with skin diseases or asthma...I estimate 40 per cent of tannery workers have health problems because they are in direct contact with the chemicals.' (Dr G. Asokan, Peranampattu, India)
This is a global problem, however, and not one limited to India or Bangladesh. For example, studies of leather-tannery employees in Sweden, Italy and the US found that their cancer risk was as much as 50% higher than what was expected.
Need more reasons to avoid leather? Here's one: our love of leather is fueling the destruction of the Amazon rainforest