By Adrienne Suhm
It’s likely that you own a lot of leather: boots, belts, purses, jackets, or even jewelry made from leather convey a certain luxury and functionality. But do you know where these items came from, or how they were made? Specialization and globalization allow us to access a wide variety of products, yet simultaneously disconnect us from their origins. The leather industry is one such example of this disconnect: it provides millions of people with everyday apparel while causing the slaughter of more than one billion animals each year, often in remote corners of the globe.
Around 23 billion square feet of leather are produced annually in a total market worth $77 billion. The world’s top leather producers include China and India, although other developing nations such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Vietnam are becoming increasingly involved in the leather trade due to their lack of stringent labor, environmental safety, and manufacturing regulations. Leather is especially problematic in India, where it is illegal to kill cows in most regions. As a result, leather production is carried out in relative secrecy or the cattle are forced to march up to sixty miles to neighboring Bangladesh for slaughter. The animals are given no food or water on the journey to the slaughterhouse, and workers break the tails or rub chili pepper in the eyes of collapsed cattle to keep them moving. Cows regularly have their throats cut or are skinned while still conscious. These cattle, proven to be an intelligent species with socially complex relationships and distinct personalities, are made to watch as their herd is killed. Factory farming also subjects cows to practices such as castration, branding, and dehorning from a young age. And horrifically, due to the limited enforcement of regulations in many developing economies, the skin of dogs or cats is sometimes substituted for cow leather.
From an environmental standpoint, the situation is also grim. Our global herd of 60 billion animals requires grazing pastures, which currently account for a shocking 26% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface area. The Brazilian cattle industry, one of the largest livestock operations in the world, is responsible for 14% of the planet’s annual deforestation, most of it taking place on irreplaceable South American rainforest lands. In addition, cattle farming is responsible for 18% of all global greenhouse emissions.
The tanning process, which stabilizes leather so that it does not harden or rot, is widely considered one of the top 10 pollution problems of our time. The most popular method requires both tanning liquor and chromium salts, toxic materials that are typically discarded into local water sources after use. Tanneries in Bangladesh alone produce 22,000 cubic meters of contaminated wastewater per day. When present in the water system, tanning materials can cause infections, infertility, and birth defects in humans, while polluting the natural environment to render it unlivable for animals. An estimated 90% of tannery workers die before the age of 50 due to toxic materials in their facilities. The countries in which the leather industry is most prevalent also have limited enforcement of labor laws, so children are forced to work in close proximity to these damaging chemicals from a young age.
While you may have seen popular brands labeling new products as “vegan leather,” it is equally as important to understand that alternative leather is not necessarily healthier or more environmentally friendly than the traditional kind. Current Federal Trade Commission standards in the United States do not provide any restrictions on the actual composition of imitation leather products. Consequently, vegan leather is cheaper but usually less durable than normal leather because it is made from some combination of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polyurethane (PU), and other plastic alternatives. PVC is derived from fossil fuels and contains phthalates as well as with other known organic pollutants. It is not biodegradable and releases dioxins, which are some of the most potent synthetic carcinogens ever tested. For these reasons, Greenpeace has called PVC the most damaging plastic on the planet. Because of publicity around the health implications of PVC, it is less widely used today, but can still be found in some vegan leathers.
However, there are some industry pioneers developing responsible vegan leathers. Montreal-based Matt and Nat creates vegan leather accessories that often make use of recycled materials such as nylon, cardboard, rubber, cork, plastic bottles, or most recently, tires. Furthermore, in a viral 2013 TED Talk, Modern Meadow founder Andras Forgacs introduced the idea of biofabricated leather, or leather grown in a lab. Sheets of cells and collagen are layered together and tanned to create a real leather product that effectively removes the environmental implications and mistreatment of animals from the leather-making process. While this concept may seem more science fiction than fashion reality, Modern Meadow has already introduced biofabricated leather apparel in select exhibits throughout New York and will appear in retail fashion lines as early as this year. A number of established fashion labels have also committed to veganism on a large scale: market leaders such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger are all animal-free. Seeking out vegan brands requires only minimal research, as they are generally transparent about all materials and practices. With today’s diverse selection of apparel, it is completely unnecessary to seek out leather – and we’d be willing to bet you won’t even miss it.