So...what's wrong with leather?
Updated: Jan 20
Leather is frequently overlooked by people who already recognise that fur is unethical but don't know the facts about the leather 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 isn't the case, however. Leather is not so much a byproduct as it is a coproduct, or even a subsidy, with the skin accounting for about 10% of the slaughtered animal's overall value in the case of cows--or far more, in the case of animals who are specifically bred for their skin, like ostriches. (In their case, the skin is 80% of the value, and they suffer immensely on UK farms.) The reality of the matter is that if you buy leather, regardless of who it came from, you are supporting the industry. Cows and ostriches aren't the only animals whose skin we wear, of course--leather is also made from zebras, kangaroos, sharks, dolphins, seals and more. Snakes and lizards are also victims of the industry, and in fact they are routinely nailed to a tree and skinned alive in the belief that it will make their skin more supple.
You may have heard people suggest that leather is an eco-friendly choice, but this is far from the truth. Leather is not simply skin--if it were, it would quickly rot in people's closets and on their feet. Instead, it is treated through a process known as tanning to prevent this natural breakdown. A number of dangerous toxins are used in order to do so, such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and oils, dyes, and finishes, some of which are cyanide-based. Most leather is chrome-tanned, the most toxic method available. In large amounts, such as those used by tanneries, chromium is a major carcinogen and which has been linked to increased rates of asthma, allergies, bronchitis, polyps in the upper respiratory tract, and more--and of course, cancer. Multiple studies have linked leather production to nasal, pancreatic, lung, bladder and testicular cancers. Not surprisingly, it is incredibly dangerous and risky work performed by vulnerable people--even moreso than slaughterhouse work--and is appalling from a human rights perspective.
'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)
What makes this perhaps even more dangerous is that tanneries require an enormous amount of water to operate (15,000 gallons per ton of hide) and are thus frequently sited by rivers, where large quantities of solid waste like hair, flesh and trimmings 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.
There's no need to support this incredibly cruel industry, especially not now that we have so many alternatives. Many brands are making their own vegan shoes, bags and jackets now--both cheap and expensive--and there are dozens of independent shops. Check out the hundreds of options at stores like Beyond Skin, Vegetarian Shoes, Matt & Nat, Ethical Wares and more!
Resources and further reading:
Viva! Hell for Leather Factsheet, 2019
Tarontola, Andrew, How Leather Is Slowly Killing the People and Places That Make It, Gizmodo, 3 June 2014
Bangsten, Pter and Danwatch, Toxic chemicals used for leather production poisoning India’s tannery workers, The Ecologist, 26 Oct. 2012
Carter, Kate, Don't hide from the truth, The Guardian, 27 Aug. 2008