Getting under a thick skin of deceit… an in-depth look at the truth about leather
An unethical ‘material’ that harms not only the animals we skin for it, but the planet, too.
Emma Håkansson / @hakamme of Willow Creative Co
If you haven’t been lucky enough to meet a cow, (or any animal we use and abuse in the animal agricultural and fashion industries) who lives at a sanctuary and knows they are safe, and so lives free of a fear of humans, let me tell you a little about what it’s like. To start with, cows have just as much personality as the companion animals we live with. Some of them are very curious, love to play, love to socialize with their friends. Others are more reserved, like their space, and love affection – once you’ve earned their tick of approval and been accepted as a friend. They wag their tails like dogs, they have best friends and they have cows they don’t get along with. Essentially, I’m explaining their ability to not only feel physical pain (through their complex central nervous system), but to live a life not unlike the lives of animals we love. All animals want to live, and love to live.
(Rescue cow Yowie and me)
It is immoral to kill someone who wants to live. This is a premise we take for granted when thinking of other humans, or our beloved companion animals, but we’ve been culturally conditioned to think that the lives of some animals aren’t important. We’ve been taught to see some living beings simply as ‘stock’, that happen to be alive, but only exist for our use and consumption. But why do we feel that some sentient animals (including ourselves) deserve to live more than others? While we can talk about intellect, about supposed ‘superiority’, all animals are the same in the one way that really matters – we all want to live.
There are many animals we kill solely so we can wear them; foxes, alligators, minks, snakes. All these needless killings are wrong, but let’s talk about cows for now.
It’s a common belief that the leather industry itself does not kill cows for their skin, but that the skin of cows killed so we can eat their flesh, is turned into leather, simply to ‘minimize waste’. It follows, that people think leather should be bought and sold so long as the meat industry exists, so that we don’t waste anything. In reality, leather is not a by-product of the meat industry, but a co-product – a product that accounts for about 50% of a farmer’s financial gain from the killing of an animal. By supporting the leather industry, you support the meat industry, and the killing of animals.
Not only are cows whose fleshes are eaten used for their skin, but so too are the bobby calves of the dairy industry. A bobby calf is a male baby cow, who was born from a dairy cow, as, like all other animals, cows need to be pregnant to produce milk. This baby boy won’t grow up to produce milk himself, so the most financially viable ‘solution’ to his existence in the dairy industry, is to kill him. Sometimes his skin is then sold for soft, ‘luxurious’ leather products.
It gets more barbaric too. There are some cows who are sent to slaughter in the late stages of pregnancy, who are killed, and have their (almost completely developed) calf ripped from her to be used for ‘slink leather’, the most expensive and soft leather available.
This is no way to treat beings with complex social systems, with strong maternal bonds, with clear and undeniable sentience and love for life.
(Me and my friend Sophie feeding two rescue bobby calves at a sanctuary)
Needless violence and death aside, leather is still a very harmful ‘material’. The knowledge that the meat industry is detrimental to the environment is becoming more and more wide spread, but the link between this industry and leather is often forgotten. For example, a pound of cow flesh (‘beef’) requires 2000 gallons of water to produce (think of how much water a cow drinks, how much water is used to irrigate feed crops, for sanitation purposes, for all kinds of processes). Leather comes from the same animal, so of course this mammoth water usage applies (roughly) to it, too.
According to the UN, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than all transport worldwide. Think of all that car exhaust, jet fuel and petrol. This is another statistic we must remind ourselves applies to leather, and not just ‘food’ based animal agriculture.
One of the most unsustainable parts of raising animals for ‘products’ is land usage. According to WWL, 25% of global land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are driven by beef (intrinsically linked to leather) production. In fact, in the last half century, 70% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared due to animal agriculture – for pastures or for growing feed crops. (In 2011, over 2.5 billion tons of grain were harvested, and half of that was fed to animals in agricultural industries).
This mass deforestation not only creates huge green house gas emissions, but habitat loss for many different species native to the Amazon, too.
It is often joked that the methane from cow farts is a huge threat to our planet. Well, animals on factory farms (the overwhelming majority of farmed animals) produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population – and unlike in our own bathrooms, these animals and their excrement do not have waste treatment plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that livestock pollutions is the greatest threat to American waterways, and this became shockingly clear during Hurricane Florence, when (aside from the devastating abandonment and consequential death of thousands of pigs and many other animals) the media chattered about the enormous amount of excrement that flooded through out North Carolina.
Why did that happen? The 2100 pig farms in North Carolina, use 3000 open pit ‘lagoons’, to hold the estimated 40 million gallons of excrement that pigs produced per day, and these were swept up in the flooding caused by Florence. Even without natural disaster catastrophes though, water from these lagoons can sometimes seep into and contaminate soil, trickling down into natural water tables. Farmers also spray this waste onto fields, in order to empty their full ‘lagoons’. This causes likelihood of ground water and air pollution. This is harmful for the planet, but also for communities living around these facilities, who breathe and drink this contaminated air and water. This is relevant to the discussion of leather, as pig skin is commonly used, and of course, because pigs are not the only factory farmed animals who excrete feces.
(Pigs huddle atop their barn in 1999, when the same overflow occurred in the wake of Hurrican Floyd, also in North Carolina)
Once an animal has been slaughtered, and he or she is skinned, the environmental damage does not end. The process of tanning, that turns skin into ‘leather’, is incredibly unnatural, and creates something that truly defies nature: a corpse that does not rot. This process, that stabilizes collagen and protein fibers in raw, bloody, skin, to stop the process of biodegradation, involves the use of many toxic chemicals, including Anthracene, Arsenic, Formaldehyde and Chromium. Tanning also involves a large amount of energy and water usage, as well as water pollution as a result of chemicals used.
The majority of the world’s leather is produced in India, Bangladesh and China, where adequate environmental protection standards are not in place. This means liquid and solid waste from tanneries is often dumped, untreated, into rivers. This is devastating to the environment itself, but also to the people within it, as Chromium also poses serious health risks to humans in contact with it.
Some leather brands use vegetable tanning, claiming that this is a sustainable alternative to chemical based tanning methods. While this is undoubtedly an improvement on chemical tanning, according to the BLG Technology Centre, no tanning technology available ‘offers a full environmental advantage over the others’. BLGTC also state that ‘evidence does not support’ vegetable tanning being much more sustainable than the most common process of tanning, with Chromium, which is used in more than 80% of all leather products. Even if vegetable tanning, a far lesser used form of tanning, in itself were a sustainable option, it would be absurd to then claim that a vegetable tanned leather product were sustainable, considering most of the environmental damage involved in leather, occurs in raising animals for their skin to begin with.
The leather industry clings to and encourages the idea that vegan leather is awful for the environment, hoping this belief will keep their industry booming. For that reason, we hear a lot more about the damage vegan leather causes, than we do the damage any of our other clothes – non organic cotton sprayed with harmful pesticides, wool that involves the unsustainable and cruel raising of animals, all kinds of unnatural materials that shed ocean polluting microfibers in the wash, like polar fleeces, for example. This is to say that while vegan leather is not always sustainable, it should not be vilified as the sole polluter of the fashion world. If we care about sustainability, we need to care everywhere – we need to think of all aspects of our clothing, we need to think of everything we consume, including what we eat (ahem, environmentalist omnivores).
So what about vegan leather? Is it any better?
(Me, modelling a PU leather jacket)
Vegan leather is typically made by bonding a plastic coating with a fabric backing. However, there are many different types of plastics used, and this is crucially important to figuring out its environmental impact. The original synthetic leather is Polyvinyl Chloride. PVC itself is infamous for being bad for the environment, as in its production; it produces dioxins and uses toxic chlorine. It has been labelled by Greenpeace as the ‘most environmentally damaging type of plastic’. However, PVC is being used less and less in fashion, and there are even certain laws around its use.
PU, another common, plastic based vegan leather that is more often used today, is far less toxic. Anyone producing PU in the EU is also required to have vent controls to keep emissions as low as possible (while there are no similar restrictions for highly polluting animal farmers). While this is not perfect, as it still involves the use of petroleum, new breakthroughs in the world of vegan leather alternatives are being discovered constantly. (Not to mention, there are a tonne of wonderful shoes that aren’t made of leather or vegan leather, but of velvet, denim, canvas, all kinds of materials, and non leather lining or soles).
Innovations involving vegetable based plastics in the production of PU leather, for example, reduce all toxic and hazardous elements of PU, as they are made with plant oil by-products. This new process would makes PU more biodegradable. There are brands now working with recycled PU materials, reducing petroleum usage. There are even brands using recycled plastic bottles to create leather alternatives! There are brands creating entirely plant-based leathers – such as ‘leather’ made from coloured/coated cork, pineapple leaf leather, apple leather and mushroom leather. It’s all very exciting.
(Pineapple leaves discarded by fruit farmers being used for pineapple leather)
So, while it’s clear animal skin leather is completely unsustainable, not all vegan leather is environmentally harmless, or even friendly, either. It’s important we be honest about what the vegan fashion world needs to improve on.
But everyday we are seeing improvements. It’s incredibly exciting to be living in a time where new types of vegan leather, that are sustainable and cruelty free, are being created all the time. It’s important we support vegan leather brands now, so that they are financially able to continue their work in finding alternatives that are more and more green.
With this in mind, when the time comes that you want to buy a new pair of shoes, a jacket, a wallet, a handbag or a briefcase, what will you buy? The skin of a once living being, produced in a way that demands water wastage, pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation and for the most part, chemical tanning? Or vegan leather made from something rather than someone? Perhaps it may be a less sustainably advanced, but still less eco damaging leather, or perhaps it will be made of recycled materials, even of totally earth friendly, pineapple leaves. There are so many options now; we need to be choosing kind ones.