Leather: What’s Wrong With It?

In addition to leather’s unethical side, its environmental effects are less-than stylish.


Industrial production of leather in the US began in the early 20th century, when Milwaukee became the largest leather-manufacturing center in the country. By the 1930s, the US leather industry declined because of competition abroad, yet today it still holds a piece of the global production pie. Most leather made in the US comes from cows, but it can also come from horses, sheep, lamb, goats and pigs. Other animals killed around the world specifically for their skins include zebras, kangaroos, elephants, crocodiles, and snakes. Each year, more than a billion animals are killed worldwide and turned into leather belts, shoes, jackets, and couches.

Originally, animal skin was air- or salt-dried and tanned with vegetable tannins or oil. Today, the tannins used come from a who’s-who list of environmental toxins: formaldehyde, cold-tar derivatives, and cyanide-based oils and dyes. Most leather produced in the US is chrome tanned, producing waste that’s been linked to cancer. A New York State Department of Health study found that more than half of all testicular cancer victims work in tanneries. Every year in the US, 37.5 million cows raised for meat but also used for their skins are stunned, hung upside down, bled to death and skinned in slaughterhouses. Although the federal Humane Slaughter Act stipulates that cows should be killed “humanely,” first being stunned by a mechanical blow to the head to render them unconscious before they’re strung up, assembly lines often process 400 cows per hour, resulting in improper stunning.

Unfortunately, the scenario gets worse outside the US, where most of the world’s leather comes from. With nonexistent animal-protection laws or laws that go unenforced, India and China conduct heinous practices left unchecked, except by animal-welfare organizations that conduct random investigations. A startling fact is that India, a country known for worshipping its cows, employs brutal practices in its leather industry. On their journey to the slaughterhouse, cows are transported illegally in crammed trucks. Arriving sick and injured, they’re often dragged into filthy factories where they’re butchered using inhumane practices and often while conscious. It doesn’t get any better in China-the world’s leading leather exporter. Along with cattle and sheep, an estimated two million cats and dogs in China are killed for their skins each year. Many products made from these skins are sold unlabelled to unwitting American and European consumers.

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