The global leather industry is responsible for torturing and murdering animals as well as exposing our environment to hazardous toxins in order to make its final product. Most of the leather in the U.S. comes from India, where cows are marched hundreds of miles in the heat without food or water. They have their tails broken and chili peppers and tobacco rubbed into their eyes in order to force them to get back up after they collapse. In the slaughterhouse, their throats are cut and they’re skinned, often while they’re still alive—all this just to make a shoe or a belt.
The multibillion-dollar meat industry profits from more than just animals’ flesh. The byproducts of meat consumption include organs that are used in pet food, heart valves that are used in the pharmaceutical industry, and fats and blood that are used in livestock feed, tires, explosives, paints, and cosmetics.1,2 The skin of the animal, however, represents “the most economically important byproduct of the meat packing industry.”3
When the milk production of cows in the dairy industry declines, their skin is 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 is directly linked to the sale of leather goods.
Most leather produced and sold in the U.S. is made from the skin of cows 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 buffalo, 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 skin and flesh. Young alligators are often kept in tanks above ground, while larger animals live in pools half-sunken into concrete slabs.4 According to Florida’s regulations, as many as 350 6-foot alligators can legally inhabit a space the size of a typical family home.5
Humane treatment isn’t 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’re skinned.6
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 skin of unborn calves and lambs—some purposely aborted, others from slaughtered pregnant cows and ewes, respectively—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 who was shorn shortly before slaughter. The skin is tanned with the wool still on it.
Animals who are 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’re 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’re 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.
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. Animal skin is turned into finished leather with a variety 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 U.S. 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.7
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 higher than the national average.8 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 cancer and the chromium used in tanning.9
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.10
Raising animals whose skins eventually become leather creates waste and pollution. 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.11 Trees are cut down to create pastureland, vast quantities of water are used, and feedlot and dairy-farm runoff is a major source of water pollution.
You can help animals used for their skin by not buying products made from leather or any other type of animal skin. It’s easy to find vegan leather shoes, belts, and jackets. You can also take action for animals by sharing our “Where Leather Is Born” video with everyone you know!
1Rothsay, “The Products of Rendering,” Rothsay Online, 15 Mar. 2006.
2A. Severin Johnson, “Packing House Byproducts,” Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University, Feb. 2003.
3David 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).
4Michael P. Masser, “Alligator Production,” Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, May 1993.
6Sue Reid, “Getting Under Their Skin,” The Sunday Times (London) 16 Feb. 1997.
7Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the United States (Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998) 52.
8Richard B. Hayes, “The Carcinogenicity of Metals in Humans,” Cancer Causes and Control, 8 (1997), 371–85.
9France Labrèche, Ph.D., Occupations and Breast Cancer: Evaluation of Associations Between Breast Cancer and Workplace Exposures (Montréal: McGill University, 23 Dec. 1997).
10Jennifer M. Fitzenberger, “Dairies Gear Up for Fight Over Air,” Fresno Bee 2 Aug. 2005.
11Intergovernmental Group on Meat, Sub-Group on Hides and Skins, U.N. 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.
12Jennifer M. Fitzenberger, “Dairies Gear Up for Fight Over Air,” Fresno Bee 2 Aug. 2005.
13BBC News, “Cats ‘Farmed for Skins in EU,'” 8 May 2003.
14Doris Schubert, “Assessment of the Environmental Release of Chemicals From the Leather Processing Industry,” IC-07 Leather Processing Industry 28 Jul. 1998.
15Australian 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).
16Radio National, Australia, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” The Sports Factor, narrated by Amanda Smith, 31 May 2002.
17Edith Stanley, “Chicken Again? These Gators Get a Steady Diet of Dead Fowl,” Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2001.