I’ve spent a lot of time recently sharing vegan fashion inspiration, much of which includes leather alternatives, especially for shoes and bags. I do this assuming that most people understand why wearing animals is so destructive, but every once in a while I hear a conversation or come across a naive comment that reminds me how crucial it is to spread the truth. Most consumers are so desensitized to the fact that the leather handbags, jackets, boots, sneakers, etc, hanging on racks throughout nearly every clothing store are made from a material that used to keep an animal alive. So, with that in mind, I wanted to share a few leather-related facts for you to learn from and/or share with others!
1) Most leather comes from China or India, where animal welfare laws are relatively nonexistent.
Shocked to see India as a leader of the leather trade? I was too, given the sacred nature of cows in the region, and the constitutional protection they are supposed to be granted. Sadly, the laws that protect them are easy to get around, and for the most part ignored.
(photo via PFCI)
Cows are transported from Hindu states to the Islamic states, where they can be slaughtered more openly. During this transportation, cows are often neglected, sometimes going days without food or water. When they collapse from exhaustion or dehydration, common methods of getting them to move include breaking their tails or smearing hot chili pepper into their eyes.
(photo via PFCI)
Between these horrors and the institutionalized mistreatment of all exploited animals in China, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of leather comes from animals who lived truly painful, sad, and fearful lives. Even if a leather product says it was made in America, Italy, or another country you trust, that definitely does not guarantee that the materials were sourced there.
2) Leather is not a by-product of the meat industry, it is a co-product.
Many people (myself formerly included), assume that avoiding leather won’t save any lives, because it’s just a by-product of the meat industry (and thus, not buying it would supposedly result in those hides being thrown away). The reality, however, is that leather is estimated to produce at least half of the profits for slaughterhouses that process cattle. The profit margin for cow meat is relatively small compared to that of leather, so many cattle processing companies rely on the leather trade to stay afloat.
Put more simply, boycott the flesh AND the skins if you want animal cruelty to be put out of business more quickly.
3) Leather tanning ranks #5 on the world’s most toxic pollution problems list.
We call it “leather” to avoid thinking about the source, but we must remember that this material is actually just the decomposing flesh of a once-living animal. If left untreated, it would be a pretty disgusting (and certainly not fashionable) sight, so the tanning process is a crucial phase in the leather production cycle. Tanning includes many steps, such as bleaching, dyeing, finishing, and shining- all of which require the use of harsh, destructive chemicals. The most noteworthy of these is chromium, a toxic chemical that, when rinsed off the hide, flows into local wastewater, causing a vast array of environmental issues. The chromium waste ends up in soil, air, food, and water, harming any animal or human who comes in contact with it. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not find myself eating food that was contaminated by a known carcinogen.
4) Employees in tanning factories suffer horrific injuries and illness
I know, vegans aren’t supposed to care about humans, right? Fortunately I don’t fit into that stereotype (nor do the majority of my compassionate vegan friends). Leather tanning often takes place in impoverished regions of China and India, where employees are not only given little to no money, but where they also risk their lives every day. Their exposure to chromium is of course dramatically higher, leading not only to possible cancer, but also eye damage, ulcerations, bronchitis, and holes in the nasal septum. Throw in the prevalence of child labor in some of these areas (the girl below stands outside a tanning factory in Bangladesh, another hot spot for leather tanning) and you have a pretty heartbreaking situation.
So, overall, the leather situation is pretty bleak. It’s horrific for animals, the environment, and humans, yet most people continue to support it despite the plethora of incredible alternatives coming to market every day! Please vote with your dollars to choose handbags, jackets, and shoes that are more aligned with your values, and together we’ll abolish this antiquated, destructive industry.
(PS: Much of the inspiration for this post comes from Rory Freedman’s new book, "Beg". If you don’t have it, get it!)