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For years, we've been informed about how natural material animal leather is and being categorized as an environmentally friendly option due to being a byproduct or even waste. Animal leather was the remains of animals whose meat was consumed, and it was considered the best option for our health! But is that the case? Let's shed light on some facts about leather's past, present, and future together.
According to Collective Fashion Justice Organization, the leather industry often creates a misleading narrative by defining leather as a 'byproduct' and portraying it as financially insignificant. This narrative suggests that buying leather doesn't contribute to animal slaughter or environmental harm; instead, it claims that it reduces waste. However, this perspective is not accurate.
Leather is considered a significant asset for both the meat and dairy industries; in 2020, the global leather goods market was valued at $394 billion USD. Cattle are raised for both meat and dairy, and although the hide of a cow slaughtered for meat might be less valuable than its meat, it is still equally profitable.
These industries label cattle hides as a valuable 'byproduct' in their reports rather than waste. Purchasing leather directly supports these cattle industries and plays a crucial role in their financial stability. Slaughterhouses, especially those experiencing declines in sales of cattle hides due to reduced demand for leather – driven by factors such as the increasing popularity of alternative vegan leather – have reported losses in the millions of dollars.
Some of these financial losses have been attributed to the emergence of vegan leather alternatives, which have been proven to have significantly lower environmental impacts. Even materials like PU synthetic leather, while having a lower environmental footprint, ultimately necessitate a transition to bio-based next-generation materials. Despite the fact that leather sales currently subsidize the damages caused by the livestock industry to the environment, animals, and humans, the increasing availability of alternatives is making it harder to cover up these damages.
According to the Sustainable Clothing Coalition, leather is one of the materials with the worst impact on the planet. Pre-tanning raw material such as cowhide is much more harmful to the environment compared to synthetic leather and polyester. The water footprint of a single cow's hide is over 10,000 liters, and a pair of leather shoes consumes as much water as an individual's recommended daily intake over 10 years.
The oldest intact leather shoe discovered by archaeologists dates back over 5,500 years, made from cowhide, found in an Armenian cave and predating the Giza Pyramids by 1,000 years. This is clear evidence of how long leather, the most commonly used animal material in fashion, has been a part of our lives. Therefore, understanding what the use of leather, which has various applications in our clothing habits, from shoes to jackets, wallets to belts, has brought with it is of great importance.
Most of the leather we wear is produced in a few countries: India, Russia, Italy, Brazil, and China are among the leading countries. Kanpur, which produces almost a third of India's leather, is a place where many international brands source their leather at low costs, earning it the title of India's leather city. Approximately 50 million liters of wastewater are produced daily from around 400 tanneries in Kanpur, releasing toxic water equivalent to 20 Olympic swimming pools into water sources every day. Contrary to common misconceptions, leather is not just a worthless byproduct: leather products represent half of the income of luxury brands like H****s.
Research shows that it would be better for the environment to dispose of the leather from the livestock industry in a landfill than to transform it into leather products.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), including the leather supply chain, livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even surpassing the transportation sector. Despite decreasing demand, the leather industry is predicted to need to slaughter 430 million cows annually by 2025. The comprehensive livestock rearing required for leather production leads to excessive use of water and soil resources, along with significant emissions of harmful gases. The production process involves several stages that consume significant resources and release harmful pollutants. Particularly, the tanning process releases wastewater and chemicals that pollute water sources and pose serious risks to ecosystems and aquatic life. The tanning process is resource-intensive and toxic. On average, about 8,000 liters of water are needed to produce one ton of leather. As shown in the documentary "River Blue," the concentrated amounts of chemicals used in leather processing are released into main water sources without proper treatment, affecting irrigation and clean water supplies. This has been shown to have a significant impact on life and a notable reduction in life expectancy in regions where leather production occurs.
Both PETA and Greenpeace have published comprehensive reports on animal welfare and the ecological impact. Both reports highlight that the harm goes beyond animal welfare, threatening forests and wildlife. An animal needs the equivalent of about 10,000 square meters of space over its lifetime to feed, and in Brazil alone, 213 million animals are raised each year. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has reported that raising livestock for leather production is one of the leading causes of deforestation, attributing 80% of deforested land in the Amazon rainforest to cattle farming.
Human Rights Violations
As important as the environmental issues, fair production and human rights problems are also significant concerns in leather production. In many regions where leather production is predominant, especially in developing countries, working conditions are often exploitative and unsafe. Long working hours, inadequate wages, child labor, and unsafe working conditions are common issues. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), many countries producing leather have weak labor regulations and practices, resulting in inhumane practices. ILO estimates that over 40 million people are subjected to modern slavery, and labor exploitation is widespread in sectors like leather. Especially during the tanning process, workers are exposed to long working hours, low wages, and hazardous chemicals, leading to health problems and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. The tanning process involves immersing hides in a chemical solution to prevent decay. Reports indicate that approximately 90% of tanning processes use chrome tanning, which involves toxic chemicals and gases, including known carcinogenic substances like chromium. This process often occurs in developing countries where exploited workers, including children as young as ten, are employed to tan leather. These toxic tanneries have serious effects on workers' health, including cancer, reproductive issues, skin reactions, and leprosy. Some "tannery towns" have seen about 90% of tannery workers dying before reaching 50 years old due to the toxic chemicals and waste released into local water sources.
Perhaps the most glaring yet often overlooked issue in animal leather production is the cruelty inflicted on animals to meet our leather demand. It is estimated that the skin of 1.5 billion animals is used for leather each year, exceeding the total population of Europe and North America. These animals endure terrible suffering, from being kept in crowded and unsanitary factory-farm conditions to being slaughtered in slaughterhouses. Calves and lambs, including newborns and those taken from pregnant mothers, are especially preferred in the fashion industry due to the softness of their hides. Because their hides are extremely soft at young ages, they are considered "extremely valuable" and are sent for slaughter while still calves. Some high-end products, like gloves, are even known to use the hides of fetuses and stillborn animals. Calves are often killed through blunt trauma, while the preferred method for killing cattle is considered to be shooting a fixed-bolt gun into the animal's head before cutting its throat. Unfortunately, the supply of these guns is not provided in many countries due to financial or cultural reasons. In large-scale leather production companies, it has been documented that cows are conscious during bleeding. Similar processes are applied to animals bred for fur. These animals are confined in cages, kept inactive for a certain period to gain weight and increase fur volume, and then electrocuted to preserve fur quality and integrity.
Centuries later, as we address not only a human-induced climate crisis but also an animal and social welfare crisis built upon commodification and boundless capitalism, it's time to move beyond leather. Ongoing material innovation each day proves the possibility of an entirely ethical fashion future that goes beyond animals and extends beyond the confines of traditional fashion. We now know that designers and consumers are not choosing leather because it comes from animals; they're choosing it for the specific characteristics it possesses. Plant-based leather already possesses many of these characteristics. According to a survey by Collective Fashion Justice, 75% of Australians and around 78% of people in the UK prefer non-animal leather if it is sustainable and readily available. Similarly, 90% of consumers surveyed in China prefer the new generation of sustainable and animal-friendly plant-based leather.
Stopping animal cruelty while contributing to human welfare and ecological balance is possible!
To learn more about plant-based leather, check out our blog post: https://prev.shop/en/blogs/plant-revolution/why-plant-based-leather