We rely heavily on the supply of leather for fashion, shoes, home interiors and automotive. The global leather market is estimated to be worth more than $80 billion USD a year. Leather is a big business, but there is no doubt that it is also one of the most polluting industries on the planet.
As consumers, we all have the ability to change supply chains and impact the demand for certain materials and commodities. This article exposes the top 10 reasons why we should NOT buy leather and shows how this material is deeply connected to global deforestation, pollution and human exploitation.
The use of more than 250 different chemicals during leather processing produces solid, liquid and gaseous waste. Exposure to these different chemicals is the main cause of soil, atmospheric, water, and air pollution.
Many tannery sites are clustered together, creating heavily polluting industrial areas. In Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, one area contains more than 200 tanneries. It is estimated that 7.7 million litres of wastewater and 88 million tons of solid waste are disposed of annually. These pollutants are responsible for the contamination of all nearby surface and groundwater systems with severely high levels of chromium.
What is more, the dumped chemicals and effluence will stay in the soil for decades, and the items made from leather will further leach chemicals when they break down in landfills.
Tannery workers face many health problems because of their exposure to the hazardous chemicals used in leather production. Aside from skin and respiratory diseases, tannery workers have a life expectancy of just 54. This exposure to chemicals comes from measuring and mixing chemicals, adding them to drums, or manipulating hides saturated in them.
Some of these chemicals can be injurious to health in the short term, such as sulfuric acid and sodium sulfide that burn body tissue, eye membrane, skin, and the respiratory tract. Others, such as formaldehyde, azo colorants, and pentachlorophenol, are confirmed as potential human carcinogens, the health effects of which may only manifest years after exposure.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, there are around 12,000 tannery workers. The district houses thousands of families who report an array of health problems, including fevers, diarrhoea, respiratory problems, and skin, stomach, and eye conditions.
There have been many reports which have shown the use of child labour in the leather industry. An investigation in 2017 reported children as young as ten years old working without shoes and protection from chemicals. In 2021, researchers from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) found children aged seven to 17 working 12 to 14 hours, six days a week in almost all processes along the leather supply chain – from animal slaughter and skinning to dyeing, waste disposal and manufacturing of leather products and by-products such as glue and meat.
All animals react emotionally and build complex relationships. The animals in our food and fashion supply chains are systematically deprived of the basic instincts of their species. Many are bred inside and will never experience play, connection to others or the feel of grass under their feet. For us to eat meat and produce leather, the animals must be killed, and there is no humane way to do this. The animals suffer in varying degrees and experience fear and terror before they die.
Agriculture is the biggest cause of global deforestation. We are losing our forests at an alarming rate. The human population is increasing, and so is the demand for meat and the need to grow food crops. 80% of our forests are lost to raise cows for beef and to grow crops such as palm oil, soy, cocoa and coffee.
When it comes to soy, there is a misconception that the growth in soy-based products for human consumption is fuelling deforestation. This is not true. 80% of the soy grown globally is used to feed livestock.
In November 2021, Stand.Earth produced an eye-opening new report that linked over 100 fashion brands – including LVMH, Prada and Michael Kors – to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest via their leather supply chains. Brazil has the second largest cattle herd in the world (second only to India, which does not rear them for food for leather), with more than 218.23 million cows.
In 2014, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) exposed the dog leather trade in China (trigger warning). The investigation revealed that between 100-200 dogs are being bludgeoned and killed in the facility each day. Their skins are turned into leather and used to make gloves, belts, jacket collar trims, cat toys, and other accessories. These goods are often mislabelled as leather from sheep and exported around the world.
There are very few classifications for moving leather around the world. The majority of leather, regardless of species, is classified under one tariff and given a generic description.
“Leather is made of animal hide or skin. Animals whose hide and skins are used to make leather must not be on the endangered species list.” - gov.uk
So long as the skin does not originate from an endangered species, the leather and its products can move around the world without the need to stipulate its exact origin.
There is a common misconception that animal skin is a by-product of the meat industry. This is simply not the case. The value entirely depends on the species. For example, when we are talking about exotic animals, it is the skin which is the most valuable part, and the meat which is a by-product. With cows, the value of the skin is roughly 10% of the animal's economic value, so it actually supplements the overall value of the cow.
Over the last few years, many luxury brands have pledged to remove fur from their collections. Some department stores have even gone so far as to stop selling fur and exotic leather. This is great news for rabbits, foxes, minks, chinchillas and lynx, but what about leather? Leather is the skin of an animal but with the fur already removed.
There are cleaner, next-generation textiles that are not just viable alternatives to leather but materials in their own right. These clever materials are strong and durable, soft and supple, and can be used to make the same things.
These innovative textiles use non-food grade corn, cactus leaves, and apple waste from the food and beverage industry while using fewer chemicals. These new, future materials are made in facilities which have wastewater and air filtration systems and by companies that care about reducing the impact of fashion.
There are even materials like cork which do not require any chemicals at all.
Luxury is defined as something inessential, desirable, or expensive. Luxury is not just a material. It encapsulates design, craftsmanship, quality of materials, respect for people and social responsibility. Should a leather wallet on a market stall produced in a sweatshop be perceived as luxurious simply because it is made from animal leather?
Today, this material is responsible for waste, pollution, human health conditions, child exploitation and lasting environmental damage. Shouldn’t the label of ‘luxury’ be reserved for things better than that?
Photo by: m0851