Most people are aware that fur comes from animals who were either cruelly trapped or miserably raised in tiny barren cages. Few people today flaunt full-length fur coats that took the lives of 35 minks to make, but even fewer people recognize that 3 foxes suffered just the same to make a fur-trim collar. It’s estimated that 90% of today’s cage-raised fox is used for fur trim. That’s a lot of suffering for something as frivolous as a fur collar, especially when so many beautiful, stylish, and humane alternatives are available.
Even greater in the number of animals killed, however, is a material few recognize as cruel. Brushed off as a “byproduct” of another industry, leather (or, more appropriately, “hairless fur”) seems to be everywhere, from shoes, belts, wallets, bags, and briefcases, to car seats, sofas, and footballs.
Some of our best friends — dogs, cats, and horses — even boast leather leashes, collars, and saddles. But what if you learned that some leather items are actually made with the skin of those same best friends? And what if you knew that leather is so much more that just a “byproduct” of the meat industry?
The Source of Leather
Until refrigeration was perfected at the turn of the twentieth century, beef was largely a byproduct. Hides and tallow were the leading U.S. uses of cattle.
Today, leather is a booming industry. More than 139 million cows, calves, sheep, lambs, and pigs are killed for food each year, and skin accounts for roughly 50% of the total byproduct value of cattle. With the low profit margin for each head of cattle (about $3 a head), the meat industry relies heavily on skin sales to remain profitable. The United States is the largest producer of hides (from larger animals such as cattle) and skins (from smaller animals such as lambs) with an annual supply of more than 1.1 million tons. Leather is part of a barbaric cycle of cruelty and death among industries that are financially interdependent and reliant on each other — and, most importantly, consumers.
Each of these unfortunate “food and hide” animals lives in misery. Cruelly confined on factory farms with inadequate food, water, or sunshine, they are pumped full of antibiotics to withstand the inhumane conditions. They must also endure days of thirst, hunger, and cramped conditions during the harsh journey to the slaughterhouse where untold numbers die en route. The actual killing process is itself cruel, as many are skinned and gutted alive in plain view of other terrified animals.
Not all leather comes from the meat industry.
Many animals are hunted and killed specifically for their skins. These include zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, deer, eels, seals, walrus, sharks, and frogs. And there is no way to detect if imported, “exotic” leather products are made from the skin of endangered, illegally poached wildlife. That’s because the origin of the skin is often not known, as the majority of leather items are labeled with little more than “Genuine Leather.” What is known, however, is that some genuine leather is actually the skin of domestic dogs and cats.
As documented by the Humane Society of the United States in an 18-month undercover investigation in Asia, dogs are raised in dark, crowded basements, or stolen and sold for pennies. Most are brutally slaughtered in alleyways by slitting their throats and letting them bleed to death. Domestic cats are packed into small cages then hanged from the tops of those same cages — frequently employing children to execute this cold-blooded deed — and left to struggle and slowly suffocate as the other cats look on in horror. The skin from these dogs and cats is turned into wallets, purses, and golf gloves destined for Europe and the United States.
Other “types” of leather are “made” with other forms of cruelty and hidden suffering:
- Snake & lizard skin often comes from reptiles skinned alive because of the belief that live flaying imparts more elasticity, or “give,” if taken when the snake or lizard is still alive. A nail through the head pins the animal to a tree, a foot holds the writhing tail straight, and a knife cuts down each side to rip off the skin.
- Ostriches are the only birds killed for their skin and the leather is prized for its distinctive pattern (a diamond or diamond-shaped crown) of nodules where the feathers grew (quill bumps). To ensure quality skins, ostrich feathers are often removed by hand, pulling the feathers one-by-one out of their sockets with pliers while the bird is alive.
According to The New York Times, “Slaughterhouses often do not know what to do with these big birds.” A slaughterer in California said it took him “two hours of violent struggle to kill a single ostrich.” Often, ostriches are killed like chickens: They are electrically shocked (not stunned) and hung upside down to have their throats slit, sometimes while fully conscious.
- Most alligator and crocodile skins come from factory farms with about 85% of all alligator skins coming from Louisiana. “Raising alligators isn't much different from being a chicken farmer or a cattle rancher,” explains Ruth Elsey, a wildlife biologist at the state-administered Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Indeed, specifications based “primarily on the actual practices of alligator farms” inform would-be farmers that they “are able to lower their costs by doing much of the construction work themselves, buying used equipment, using less space per alligator, and using lower cost building designs ... A low-cost farm also has three grow-out buildings ... The [first] building is constructed of concrete with two rows of pens. The building is less than four feet in height and accessible through hinged roof panels along the perimeter of the building rather than through a central walkway. The total area of the building is 2,000 square feet. The low-cost farm requires four years to reach full production and produces 900 alligators per year.” Nothing on nutrition, care, or humane slaughter is offered to these would-be alligator farmers.
However, the Steering Committee for the Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) adopted a statement on Humane Killing of Crocodilians which recommends that “the cheapest and simplest technique is spinal severance followed immediately by pithing,” because shooting the animal runs the risk of a ricochet bullet that could “harm workers or damage the skin ... A very effective method is to take a large wide chisel and with a mallet drive the chisel through the spine. In some farms they weld a short rod across the chisel to prevent penetration through to the ventral throat where it would damage the skin. Immediately after cutting the spine, a metal rod is inserted into the brain cavity and the brain is completely destroyed almost instantaneously. This second step is necessary as merely cutting the spine immobilizes the animal but does not immediately kill it. The method also ensures that the skulls are undamaged and can be sold as curios to tourists for extra income — it is the method of choice on most farms.”
As with all other fur and skin farms, no U.S. laws regulate the killing, housing, or care of the animals and the industry is left to police itself. “CSG recommends that all national and international associations of crocodilian producers disseminate these recommendations and police their members to encourage compliance with these recommendations.” The alligator industry generates approximately 300,000 pounds of meat and over 15,000 alligator skins each year.
- Pigskin from intensely confined pigs is prized for the distinctive pattern of hair follicles, which pierce the skin and are connected by a series of lines. Even though throwing a football is sometimes still referred to as “tossing the pigskin,” today’s balls are made from factory-farmed cowskins. It takes approximately 3,000 cows to supply the National Football League with enough leather for a year’s supply of footballs and 3.8 steers just to make the 72 footballs used in every Super Bowl.
- Sharkskin is made into a very rough leather and comes from sharks who are cruelly hooked and dragged aboard ships to suffocate. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, sharks in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are severely depleted from overfishing. Florida fishermen take almost half of all the sharks killed, accounting for 4.8 million pounds.
- Shearling is actually sheep or lamb skin with the wool sheared before slaughter, but left attached. Both the fleece and skin are stripped off the young animals who have also endured the misery of life on factory farms.
- Kangaroo skin (as well as skin from wallabies, medium-sized kangaroos) is turned into one of the strongest known leathers, weight for weight. Adult kangaroos are shot, often hit in the throat or neck to protect the hide, and dragged toward waiting trucks struggling and still conscious. Some are still alive when their leg is sliced open, hooked through the gash, and hauled up onto the truck. Their throat is then slit and they bleed to death. Most kangaroo skins are exported to Europe and the U.S. to make football (soccer) boots. Seven million kangaroos and their babies are to be viciously slaughtered this year in Australia — the largest wildlife massacre in the world.
- Suede is a finish (not a type of animal’s skin) that is produced by separating the fibers and giving the leather a “nap.” Any type of animal skin can be made suede by “buffing” or “polishing” the inner side of the skin that was next to the meat (inside) of the animal with sandpaper or an emery wheel. Compared to the durable top grain (outer side of the skin), this layer of the hide is usually much thinner.
- Nubuck (or Nebuc) is also a finish and describes any type of animal skin which has been “buffed” or “brushed” on the outer (or grain) side of the skin to create a texture similar to that of velvet. Often mistaken for suede, Nubuck is considerably stronger.
- Rawhide is de-haired, cleaned, and dried skin, usually from cattle. Used in crafts such as saddlemaking, rawhide is also used for dog chew toys. Ironically, rawhide from Thailand has been found to contain bits of skin from domestic dogs.
- Patent leather is any type of animal skin that is finished to a hard, glossy surface and coated with varnish or enamel.
- Nappa is a soft, full grain leather made from unsplit sheepskin, lambskin, or kidskin, usually tanned with alum and chromium salts and dyed throughout usually by drum coloring (the skins are immersed in dye and tumbled in a wheel-shaped drum for hours to allow maximum dye penetration).
- Chamois is a very soft, oil-tanned, suede-finished, leather that was originally made from Alpine antelope, but is now made from sheepskin splits (the inner side of the skin that was next to the meat [inside] of the animal). Known for its absorbency.
The younger the animal is at the time of slaughter, the smoother and finer the grain structure of the skin, and the less likelihood of damage due to scratches, parasites, or dung contamination. (Think of all the leather products touting how “soft and supple” they are.) The skin of the female is usually finer grained than that of the male and has a looser fiber structure that results in a softer, stretchier leather. (Think of how much softer your mother’s skin is compared to your father’s.) It is also very hard to produce uniform quality leather goods from the older, damaged skin of aged beasts. That means the slaughter of baby animals for their skin — or better yet, mothers and their babies — is preferred. Some of the more popular baby-animal leather:
- Kidskin comes from baby goats, some reportedly boiled alive to keep the skin soft.
- Lambskin is a younger version of sheepskin and thus softer and promoted as especially luxurious. It comes from lambs (baby sheep), many who are purposely aborted because their unborn skin is “extra soft.” Calfskin is frequently misrepresented (mislabeled) as lambskin.
- Calfskin, another “luxurious” leather, comes from calves. A majority are baby bulls (males) who are taken from their mothers and confined for life to tiny crates in darkness. Cruel isolation and deprivation methods ensure that the calf’s muscles atrophy to produce tender “gourmet” white meat (veal) and soft, unblemished hides. Because some dairy cows are sent to slaughter while they are pregnant, it is not uncommon for baby calves to be aborted or removed after the mothers are slaughtered to procure the finest and most luxurious calfskin.
- Pony skin is often made from dead foals, or referred to as phony pony when it’s made from the spotted skin of cows and calves. Both come from animals who suffer in slaughterhouses and factory farms.
Whether an alligator or ostrich, cow or cat, suffering is suffering. “The skin of a python,” Maneka Gandhi, India's former Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, eloquently reminds us, “is no less precious to the snake than fur is to the fox.”
Anything but Earth-Friendly and Biodegradable
Every year the U.S. leather industry tans approximately 100 million animal skins for a $1.5-billion-a-year industry — and with meat consumption dropping since the late 1970s, this profit from the sale of animal skins is essential ... but not eco-friendly!
Tanning is the method of converting raw animal skin to the stable, workable, long-lasting material called leather. This process is especially designed to prevent leather from biodegrading by stabilizing collagen or protein fibers. (Historians have found preserved specimens of leather dating to 5000 B.C. as well as Egyptian stone carvings of about the same date showing leather workers.)
Tanning involves dangerous mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based oils and dyes, chrome, and other toxins. Tannery effluent (the outflow or waste) also contains large amounts of other pollutants that are harmful to the environment. In 1800 America, vegetable tanning was the method employed for manufacturing leather and the main “tannins” and oils used were obtained from bark, wood, and other plant and tree parts. Vegetable tanning is still used, but chrome tanning is the method predominantly used today in the United States. Chrome-tanned leather is preserved using chromium salts and makes the leather more resistant to heat. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers all waste containing chromium to be hazardous and reports that “chrome tanning accounts for approximately 90% of U.S. tanning production.”
The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology states, “On the basis of quantity of energy consumed per unit of product produced, the leather-manufacturing industry would be categorized with aluminum, paper, steel, cement, and petroleum-manufacturing industries as a gross consumer of energy.” (By contrast, plastic wearables account for only a fraction of 1% of the petroleum used in the U.S.)
In 1995, Larry Wilson was told the purple-brown stream near his home in New York was safe to use to water his farm animals. In ninety days 36 hogs, 13 dairy goats, 7 cows, 200 chickens, some rabbits, and other animals were all dead. The water was contaminated with leather tanning chemicals.
In addition to harming the environment and wildlife, another disastrous consequences of the deadly tanning process is risk to human health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a warning about health risks to workers exposed to the solvent dimethylformamide (DMF), used in the tanning process: “This substance is readily absorbed through the skin and is known to be toxic to the liver; recent evidence shows that liver damage may occur in exposed workers who appear to be healthy. DMF is also known to cause skin problems and alcohol intolerance.” According to a study released by NIOSH and the New York State Department of Health, a higher rate of testicular cancer exists among men working in tanneries than those in the general public. These health risks do not even take into consideration the harmful waste and pollution involved in raising the animals for slaughter; energy-intensive U.S. factory farming generates over 1.4 billion tons of animal waste annually which, the EPA reports, pollutes American waterways more than all other industries combined.
The good news is that humane alternatives are many. Non-leather products are stronger and more stylish than ever and, best of all, will save you money along with safeguarding the earth and the animals. Consumers who switch to buying non-leather alternatives spend 60-70% less than they did when they were purchasing leather items.
Today's non-leather shoes and accessories are more durable and “breathable.” A new material, chlorenol, used by the popular brands of hiking and athletic shoes (each has patented its own name for the material), is perforated for breathability, stretches to the foot with the same “give” as leather, provides strong support, and, in addition, is machine washable. Other alternatives used on fashionable clothing and accessories include rubber, canvas, cotton, ramie, linen from Flax, and synthetics made into velvet, faux fur, Ultrasuade® and a high-quality vinyl, Leatherette.
Non-animal-derived materials are also getting easier to find as more and more consumers jump on the “veritable vinyl” fashion wagon. A dozen years ago, in a 1990 Parents magazine poll, 69% of those polled said they were against killing animals for leather. That number continues to grow, as more and more caring consumers learn about the hidden suffering represented by leather and pressure more and more retailers to take up compassionate fashion.
Consumers who care can make their preferences known by using the two most powerful tools available — their purchasing power and their voices.
You Can Help
If you’re wearing leather, stop. (Don’t tell yourself you’ll give it up after that new pair of shoes. Stop now.) Write a letter to retailers educating them of the hidden suffering they perpetuate by selling leather. Pass this article to anyone who still thinks wearing leather is cool.
Even the world of professional sports is beginning to recognize the cruelty of leather. The National Collegiate Athletic Association will be permanently benching leather basketballs in favor of cruelty-free synthetic balls, beginning with March Madness 2003 in New Orleans. If the NCAA can be convinced to stop using leather, anything is possible.
Be an example to others. Let people know that leather (as well as fur trim) is cruel. Cruel to humans, to animals, and to the earth.