You Need to Know About The Leather Industry

Most people who refuse to buy and wear leather do it out of pity for animals, including me. As a vegetarian for life, I can’t justify wearing skin, that’s not true. Of course there is the argument that “the animal will be slaughtered, so why not use the skin?” which is true to a certain point – the leather and meat industry goes hand in hand, with leather sales an important income for slaughterhouses. Breeding cows only for skin is unusual (but never happens) because who can justify removing meat? Even dairy cows are eventually slaughtered for their skin – that’s what leather demand is.

The general conception is that skin, whether it be leather or fur, is synonymous with quality and luxury. Take this from the description of a Bentley Motors “Mulsanne” Interior Specification – “The attention to detail on show is befitting of a flagship Bentley. Take the sumptuous leather, handpicked from herds in cooler climates where the lack of insects means blemish-free hides. Soft and supple, they are then tanned in a traditional process, originally used during the construction of fine furniture pieces that optimises their natural aroma.”

Yet there is myth and ignorance surrounding its production. Most leather in the UK is made from the skins of cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, goats and pigs. The younger the animal at the time of slaughter, the smoother and finer the grain structure and the less likelihood of damage due to scratches, parasite damage, ringworm, dung contamination, improper flaying or inadequate salting. The skin of a female is usually finer grained than that of a male and has a looser fibre structure giving a softer, stretchier leather. Although the UK has some animal welfare practices in place, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that animals reared and slaughtered here feel no stress, panic or even pain. Would you spend the day in a slaughter house and witness what happens there? As with most of us, the answer is most probably no, yet generally speaking we stick our heads in the sand and only see the finished item – the steak on our plate or the jacket in our wardrobe. The situation abroad is even worse – India is one of the world’s leading exporters of leather, yet with virtually no animal welfare regulations in place, what really happens to the “sacred cow” does not make for good reading. Should you really want to know how it is however, visit peta.org and see for yourselves.

Leather & the Environment

The amount of waste and pollution generated by the leather manufacturing industry is phenomenal and wreaks havoc on the environment. The stench from a tannery is overwhelming. Not only do they pollute the air however, they also pollute the rest of the environment with the use of a multitude of harsh toxic chemicals. One estimate puts the potential cost of an effluent treatment plant in a tannery at 30% of the total outlay proving just how much of a major problem it is. The Indian leather tanneries around the Ganges (of which there are literally tens of thousands) have been cited for dumping toxic metals such as chromium into the river. All waste that contains chromium is considered hazardous. Tannery effluent also contains large amounts of other pollutants, such as protein, hair, salt, lime, sludge, sulphides and acids. Groundwater near tanneries has been found to contain highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide and formaldehyde.

The leather industry also uses a tremendous amount of energy. In fact on the basis of quantity of energy consumed per unit produced, the leather-manufacturing industry would be categorised alongside the paper, steel, cement and petroleum manufacturing industries as a gross consumer of energy.

So is it worth it? Really worth it? Is the search for luxury and perceived quality really very important because NOTHING is considered inappropriate? In these times of heightened environmental awareness, I hope there will be a gradual change in the use of any animal for its skin, but I feel we still have a long way to go. Thankfully there is some hope in quality vegan skin on the horizon, which is made from vegetable and vegetable materials starting to be used in making clothing and footwear. That must be the way forward, because surely our fragile planet cannot last much longer.