Every year, the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides.(1) Many of these animals suffer all the horrors of factory farming—including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, and unanesthetized castration, branding, tail-docking, and dehorning—and cruel treatment during transport and slaughter.
Everything but the Moo
The multibillion-dollar meat industry profits from more than just 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 calves, who are frequently raised for veal, are made into high-priced calfskin. The economic success of slaughterhouses and dairy farms are directly linked to the sale of leather goods.
The Whole Ark
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 are often kept in tanks above ground, while bigger animals live in pools half-sunken into concrete slabs.(5) According to Florida’s regulations, as many as 350 6-foot alligators can 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, farmed alligators 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 for 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 they are skinned.(10)
Kangaroos are slaughtered by the millions every year; their skins are considered prime material for soccer shoes.(11,12) Although the Australian government requires that hunters 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) Upon learning about these cruel methods, soccer star David Beckham switched to shoes made from synthetic materials in 2006.(14)
Snakes and lizards may be skinned alive because of the belief that live flaying makes leather more supple. Kid goats may be boiled alive to make 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 many consumers’ misconceptions, is not sheared wool; the term refers to a yearling sheep who has been shorn once. A shearling garment is made from the skin of 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 PETA investigation into cattle slaughter in India—where many people mistakenly believe that cows are treated well because they are revered by some Indians—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.
Hundreds of thousands of dog and cat skins are traded in Europe each year (with an estimated 2 million dogs and cats killed in China to meet the demand). Many are bought by unsuspecting consumers because the products made from dog and cat fur are often deliberately mislabeled and do not accurately indicate their origin.(15) In France, more than 20,000 cats are stolen for the skin trade annually. During a police raid on a tannery in Deux-Sèvres, France, 1,500 skins, used to make baby shoes, were seized.(16) 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 which are cyanide-based.
Most leather produced in the United States and around the world 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. A chrome-tanning facility wastes nearly 15,000 gallons of water and produces up to 2,200 pounds of “solid waste” (e.g., hair, flesh, and trimmings) for every ton of hides that it processes.(17)
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 Kentucky was five times the national average.(18) 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.(19) Studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”(20)
Raising animals whose skins eventually become leather creates waste and pollution. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are consumed in livestock production: It takes about 35 calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of beef and 68 calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of pork. At that rate, according to one Cornell University expert, the world’s fossil fuel resources will be exhausted within a decade.(21) Researchers at the University of Chicago found that the typical American diet (of which nearly 30 percent comes from animal sources) generates the equivalent of nearly 3,300 pounds more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet with the same number of calories.(22)
Trees are cut down to create pastureland, vast quantities of water are used, and feedlot and dairy-farm runoff are a major source of water pollution. A California study found that a single dairy cow “emits 19.3 pounds of volatile organic compounds per year, making dairies the largest source of the smog-making gas, surpassing trucks and passenger cars.”(23)
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, tanneries have largely shifted operations worldwide from developed to undeveloped nations, where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are lax.(24)
What You Can Do
There are many alternatives to leather, including cotton, linen, rubber, ramie, canvas, and synthetics. Chlorenol (called “Hydrolite” by Avia and “Durabuck” by Nike) is an exciting new material that is perforated for breatheability and is used in athletic and hiking shoes. It stretches around the foot with the same “give” as leather, gives good support, and is machine-washable.
If you’re buying a vehicle, check out our regularly updated list of car companies that offer models with leather-free interiors.
Leather alternatives can be found just about anywhere you might shop. But some places, such as discount shoe and variety stores, offer larger selections. Designers such as Liz Claiborne, Capezio, Sam & Libby, Steve Madden, and Nike (call 1-800-344-NIKE for a current list of vegan styles) offer an array of nonleather handbags, wallets, and shoes. For a list of merchants that offer nonleather products, order a free copy of “PETA’s Shopping Guide to Nonleather Products” by mail or by visiting CowsAreCool.com. Shop for nonleather clothes, shoes, and accessories at PETA’s online cruelty-free mall at PETAMall.com.
The following mail-order companies specialize in nonleather clothing and accessories (see CowsAreCool.com for the complete list):
Nonleather messenger bags, laptop bags, and DJ bags
Shoes, belts, bags, and more
011 44 1273 302979 (tel. and fax)
Dress and casual shoes, hiking boots, jackets, belts, and wallets
Shoes, clothing, belts, bags, and more
Used Rubber USA
Wallets, organizers, and bags made from recycled rubber
Stylish vegan shoes, boots, and belts
1) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Slaughtered/Production Animals 2005, FAOSTAT Database, 15 Mar. 2006.
2) Rothsay, “The Products of Rendering,” Rothsay Online, 15 Mar. 2006.
3) A. Severin Johnson, “Packing House Byproducts,” Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University, Feb. 2003.
4) David G. Bailey, Gamma Radiation Preservation of Cattle Hides: A New Twist on an Old Story (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, 18 Dec. 1998).
5) Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production,” Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, May 1993.
7) Edith Stanley, “Chicken Again? These Gators Get a Steady Diet of Dead Fowl,” Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2001.
8) Zoological Society of San Diego, “Alligator & Crocodile,” Animal Bytes, San Diego Zoo.org, 24 Mar. 2006.
10) Sue Reid, “Getting Under Their Skin,” The Sunday Times (London) 16 Feb. 1997.
11) Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, “Commercial Kangaroo Harvest Quotas in 2006,” Wildlife Trade and Conservation (Canberra: Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, 15 Mar. 2006).
12) “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” The Sports Factor, narrated by Amanda Smith, Radio National, Australia, 31 May 2002.
13) Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, The Macropod Conservaton and Management Plan for South Australia (Canberra: Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage, Nov. 2002) 49.
14) Tom Anderson, “Beckham Hangs Up His Boots (The Ones Made out of Baby Kangaroos),” The Independent 5 Feb. 2006.
15) John Lichfield, “20,000 French Cats Stolen by Rustlers,” The Independent 10 Dec. 1999.
16) BBC News, “Cats ‘Farmed for Skins in EU,’” 8 May 2003.
17) Doris Schubert, “Assessment of the Environmental Release of Chemicals From the Leather Processing Industry,” IC-07 Leather Processing Industry 28 Jul. 1998.
18) Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the United States (Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998) 52.
19) Richard B. Hayes, “The Carcinogenicity of Metals in Humans,” Cancer Causes and Control, 8 (1997), 371-85.
20) France Labrèche, Ph.D., Occupations and Breast Cancer: Evaluation of Associations Between Breast Cancer and Workplace Exposures (Montréal: McGill University, 23 Dec. 1997).
21) Richard Manning, “The Oil We Eat,” Harper’s Feb. 2004.
22) “It’s Better to Green Your Diet Than Your Car,” New Scientist 17 Dec. 2005.
23Jennifer M. Fitzenberger, “Dairies Gear Up for Fight Over Air,” Fresno Bee 2 Aug. 2005.
24) Intergovernmental 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.