Leather: The Wearing of Animal Skin
Every year, the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides.1 Many animals from whom these skins are taken suffer all the horrors of factory farming, including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, unanesthetized castration, branding, tail-docking, dehorning, and cruel treatment during transport and finally, slaughter.
The multibillion-dollar meat industry profits from more than just the animals’ flesh. The byproducts of meat consumption include fats and blood that are used in livestock feed, tires, explosives, paints, and cosmetics; organs that are used in pet food; and heart valves that are used in the pharmaceutical industry.2,3 The skin of the animal, however, represents “the most economically important byproduct of the meat packing industry.”4
When dairy cows’ production declines, their skin is also made into leather; the hides of their offspring, “veal” calves, are made into high-priced calfskin. Thus, the economic success of the slaughterhouse and the dairy farm is directly linked to the sale of leather goods.
Other Animals Slaughtered for Skins
Most leather produced and sold in the United States is made from the skins of cattle and calves, but leather is also made from horses, sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs who are slaughtered for meat. Other species are hunted and killed specifically for their skins, including zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, kangaroos, elephants, eels, sharks, dolphins, seals, walruses, frogs, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes.
Other “exotic” animals, such as alligators, are factory-farmed for their skins and meat. Young alligators may be kept in tanks above ground, while the bigger animals live in pools half-sunken into concrete slabs.5 According to Florida’s regulations, as many as 350 6-foot alligators may legally inhabit a space the size of a typical family home.6 One Georgia farmer had 10,000 alligators living in four buildings, where “hundreds and hundreds of alligators fill every inch of [each] room,” according to the Los Angeles Times.7 Although alligators may naturally live up to 60 years, on farms they are usually butchered before the age of 2, as soon as they reach 4 to 6 feet in length.8,9 Humane treatment is not a priority of those who poach and hunt animals to obtain their skin or those who transform skin into leather. Alligators on farms may be beaten to death with hammers and axes, sometimes remaining conscious and in agony for up to two hours after being skinned.10
Kangaroos are slaughtered by the millions every year, their skins considered to be prime material for soccer shoes.11,12 Although the Australian government requires hunters to shoot the animals, orphaned joeys and wounded adults are, according to government code, to be decapitated or hit sharply on the head “to destroy the brain.”13 Snakes and lizards may be skinned alive because of the belief that live flaying imparts suppleness to the finished leather. Kid goats may be boiled alive to make kid gloves, and the skins of unborn calves and lambs—some purposely aborted, others from slaughtered pregnant cows and ewes—are considered especially “luxurious.”
Shearling, contrary to what many consumers think, is not sheared wool; the term refers to a yearling sheep who has been shorn once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn shortly before slaughter; the skin is tanned with the wool still on it.
Animals used to produce leather in other countries often suffer horribly as well. A investigation into cattle slaughter in
, where many mistakenly believe that cows are revered, revealed that old cows are sold at auction and then marched long distances to illegal transport trucks. Often sick and injured from the grueling march, as many as 50 cattle are crammed into trucks designed to hold no more than a dozen animals. They are then driven over rutted roads, all the while goring and trampling each other, to ancient slaughterhouses where all four feet are bound together and their throats are slit. India
Hundreds of thousands of dog and cat skins are traded in Europe each year (with an estimated 2 million killed in China to meet the demand), but many are bought unknowingly by consumers since the products made from dog and cat fur are often mislabeled and do not accurately indicate their origin.14 In France, more than 20,000 cats are stolen for the skin trade annually; during a police raid on a tannery in Deux-Sèvres, 1,500 skins, used to make baby shoes, were seized.15 When you buy leather products, you may unknowingly be purchasing leather from dog and cat tanneries.
Although leathermakers like to tout their products as “biodegradable” and “eco-friendly,” the process of tanning stabilizes the collagen or protein fibers so that they actually stop biodegrading.
Until the late 1800s, animal skin was air- or salt-dried and tanned with vegetable tannins or oil, but today animal skin is turned into finished leather with a variety of much more dangerous substances, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.
Most leather produced in the
is chrome-tanned. All wastes containing chromium are considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to the toxic substances mentioned above, tannery effluent also contains large amounts of other pollutants, such as protein, hair, salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids. U.S.
Among the disastrous consequences of this noxious waste is the threat to human health from the highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde in the groundwater near tanneries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery in
was five times the national average.16 Arsenic, a common tannery chemical, has long been associated with lung cancer in workers who are exposed to it on a regular basis. Several studies have established links between sinus and lung cancers and the chromium used in tanning.17 Studies of leather-tannery workers in Kentucky and Sweden found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”18 Italy
Raising animals whose skins eventually become leather creates waste and pollution. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are consumed in livestock production. (By contrast, plastic wearables account for only a fraction of the petroleum used in the
) Trees are cleared to create pastureland, vast quantities of water are used, and feedlot and dairy-farm runoff are a major source of water pollution. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tanneries have largely shifted operations worldwide from developed to undeveloped nations, where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are lax.19 U.S.
There are many alternatives to leather, including cotton, linen, rubber, ramie, canvas, and synthetics. Chlorenol (called “Hydrolite” by Avia and “Durabuck” by Nike), used in athletic and hiking shoes, is an exciting new material that’s perforated for breatheability, stretches around the foot with the same “give” as leather, gives good support, and is machine-washable.
Vegan shoes and accessories are inexpensive, and some are even made from recycled materials.
1Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Slaughtered/
ProductionAnimals 2002, FAOSTAT Database, 21 Aug. 2003<http://apps1.fao.org/servlet/XteServlet.jrun?Areas=862&items=957&Items=919&Items=1>.
2 Rothsay, “The Products of Rendering,” Rothsay Online, 20 Jun. 2003 <http://www3.sympatico.ca/rothsay/products.html>.
3A. Severin Johnson, “Packing House Byproducts,” Agricultural Marketing Resource Center,
, Feb. 2003. Iowa State University
4David G. Bailey, “Gamma Radiation Preservation of Cattle Hides: A New Twist on an Old Story,” Agricultural Research
Department of Agriculture, Service, United States 18 Dec. 1998.
5Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production,” Southern
, May 1993. Regional Aquaculture Center
7Edith Stanley, “Chicken Again? These Gators Get a Steady Diet of Dead Fowl,”
Times, 10 Jun. 2001. Los Angeles
8“Alligator & Crocodile,” Animal Bytes, San Diego Zoo.org, 2003 <http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-crocodile.html>.
10Sue Reid, “Getting Under Their Skin,” The Sunday Times (
), London 16 Feb. 1997.
, “Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Quotas—2003,” Wild Harvest of Native Species—Kangaroos, Australia 8 May 2003<http://www.ea.gov.au/biodiversity/trade-use/wild-harvest/kangaroo/quota-summary-2003.html>.
12“Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” The Sports Factor, narr. Amanda Smith, Radio
, National, Australia 31 May 2002.
13Department for Environment and Heritage, “The Macropod Conservaton and Management Plan for
,” Nov. 2002: 49. South Australia
Lichfield, “20,000 French Cats Stolen by Rustlers,” The Independent, 10 Dec. 1999.
15 BBC News, “Cats ‘Farmed for Skins in EU,’”
8 May 2003<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3009537.stm>.
16Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the
(Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998) 52. United States
17Richard B. Hayes, “The Carcinogenicity of Metals in Humans,” Cancer Causes and Control, 8 (1997), 371-385.
Labrèche, Ph.D., “Occupations and Breast Cancer: Evaluation of Associations Between Breast Cancer and Workplace Exposures,” France , Montréal, McGill University 23 Dec. 1997.
19Intergovernmental Group on Meat, Sub-Group on Hides and Skins, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Hides and Skins and Skins and Leather Commodity Profile and Strategy for Development,” Committee on Commodity Problems, Seventh Session, 4-6 Jun. 2001.
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