Leather is the tanned and chemically treated skins of animals. Leather production involves cruelty and untimely death to animals, and damage to the environment and the health of tannery workers.
It is a myth that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, that it is worthless and would be a waste product if it wasn’t able to be made into leather goods. The reality is much different. The value of a cow’s skin is around 10% of the total value, making it the most valuable part of the body. Not only this but many animals are killed only for their skin hence the value of the leather is the only reason that farming and killing the animal is a profitable business. This element is likely increasing, as consumers turn against eating meat, yet the quantity of leather goods continues to grow.
The majority of leather actually comes from cows in India, where ironically killing cows is officially illegal. The result is that these unfortunate animals are forced to travel on trains in overcrowded conditions, during which many die, or forced to walk many miles, to arrive at backstreet slaughterhouses where the means of killing them is inhumane and horrific. The abuse that the cows are subjected to along the way includes beating, tormenting them by rubbing hot pepper or tobacco into the eyes, and forcing them to drink a fluid which prevents them from urinating, to cause an increase in their apparent weight.
Not only cows suffer in the production of leather. Goats, pigs, sheep, lambs, horses, deer, kangaroos, snakes, alligators, crocodiles, toads, sharks, buffalos, eels, ostriches, lizards, salmon, seals, zebras, dophins and elephants are also all among the victims of the leather industry. China, the world’s leading exporter of leather, annually skins an estimated 2 million dogs and cats per year, which is then unknowingly purchased by consumers due to mislabeling and inaccurate indications of the origin.
The softest leather, “slink”, comes from unborn calves, and it is more desirable and expensive because of its rarity. This leather can only be obtained by slaughtering a pregnant cow, of which 150,000 are killed each year in the UK. Another source is lambs who die at birth, around 2% of all lambs on average.
“The European Union is the world’s biggest importer of reptile skins. Between 2000 and 2005, it is estimated that 3.4 million lizards, 2.9 million crocodile and 3.4 million snake skins were brought into the EU.” (Rawstorne, 2007) Ostriches, which are native to hot climates such as Africa and the middle east, are now farmed in the UK for their meat and skin; in the US alligators and crocodiles are clubbed to death or have a chisel smashed through their spinal cord to paralyse them before being skinned alive; and wild snakes are also skinned alive (Rawstorne, 2007). Wild species killed for their coats have very little protection and may also be endangered.
Australia exports approximately 3 million kangaroo skins, worth more than £12 million, to Europe and the USA every year. The vast majority of these skins are used to make football boots. Products are often labelled ‘K leather’ or ‘RKT’ (rubberised kangaroo technology) to disguise the fact that they are made from the skins of butchered kangaroos. Each year, the Australian government sets a quota for the number of kangaroos the industry can kill; for 2008 it was 3.5 million (Australian Government, 2008). The means by which they are killed is not monitored leading to non-deadly shots, causing the animal to suffer, and as hunters cannot know if a mother kangaroo has a baby, many deaths of joeys, that are pulled from their mothers’ pouches and killed brutally, if they are not simply left to die of starvation. Since 2001 kangaroo numbers have plummeted by 57 per cent in areas where they are hunted (Australian Government, 2008).
Ostriches, a wild animal that should be running through the African bush, are penned up; their eggs taken away and their chicks killed at one year old. Slaughter bound birds are often starved for hours or days before they are killed. A hood is placed over the bird’s head before slaughter supposedly to calm him down. His legs are hobbled and the hood is soaked in water. An electric sheep stunner is clamped across his head, the bird is hoisted up and his throat cut. Another method of stunning is the captive bolt pistol. The bird’s delicate skull can stop the stunner from working or it may be shot in the wrong part of his head – meaning agony to a conscious bird aware of his life blood draining away (Gellatley, 1999).
Leather from cows is made using the hides of both beef and dairy cattle. Beef cows are bred simply to eat, grow and die. Dairy cows are among the most exploited animals on the planet. Like all mammals, cows only produce milk when they have offspring, so to increase productivity a dairy cow’s life is a constant cycle of pregnancy and lactation.
This puts the cows under huge physical strain as well as immense mental distress. After being allowed to suckle her colostrum – the first milk produced by the mother – within days of being born their calves are taken away to maximise the amount of milk available to humans. Female calves may follow the same fate as their mothers but many male calves, unable to produce milk and too scrawny for beef, are deemed useless to the farming industry and are killed at a few days old. Others are killed for veal or lower grade beef. A ‘productive’ dairy cow will supply 12,000 litres of milk a year – an unnatural amount 10 times more than her calf could require. Such an excessive burden leads to protruding pelvic and rib bones, constant hunger and massively distended udders. The energy dairy cows expend is so great, most only manage three lactations before being killed (Vernelli, 2005).
The majority of cattle are stunned with the captive bolt pistol. Penetrative captive bolt stunners drive a bolt into the skull and cause unconsciousness both through physical brain damage and the concussive blow to the skull. The bolt on a non-penetrative stunner is ‘mushroom-headed’ and impacts on the brain without entering the skull. Unconsciousness is caused by the concussive blow (Vernelli, 2005).
If an animal is not accurately stunned or the correct cartridge strength is not used, the stun will not be effective. In an attempt to improve accuracy, legislation requires that cattle are either confined in a stunning pen or have their heads ‘securely fastened’. However, head restraint systems can cause great distress. The Meat Hygiene Service says that 17 per cent of abattoirs either do not use a restraint or use an “inefficient” restraint which can result in the stun being delivered ineffectively (Meat Hygiene Service, 2000).
Abattoir vet Gabriele Meurer said: “Not many animals stand still. They are all upset, some very frightened and some move violently. The animals are never given time to calm down. Sometimes the slaughterman misses, wounding the animal terribly instead of stunning it. It may happen that the second shot cannot be done immediately and the animal is suffering for quite some time.” (Smith, 2000)
In addition to the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment, the electric goad can legally be used on the hindquarters of cattle if they are refusing to move forwards (Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs, 2008). This cruel device is intentionally designed to cause pain.
Once the animal has been stunned (or not as the case may be), the legs are shackled and the animal is lifted into the air; once upside down, the throat is cut and the cow is left to bleed. If any blood remains in the veins, it will discolour the meat and also reduce the quality of the hide.
This is how cattle are slaughtered in the UK, those slaughtered abroad may suffer an even less humane death. Many countries do not have effective standards for animal welfare and some countries such as China and India barely enforce the very few welfare standards in place.
After slaughter, the animal is left to bleed, then a cut is made through the belly from the throat of the animal to the tail, right angle cuts are made perpendicular to this line and across to the inside of each of the legs. A flaying machine is used to strip all of the skin from the animal in one movement. Next, the hide is cured to avoid putrefaction or bacterial damage which could reduce the quality of the finished leather. Curing can be achieved by soaking the hides in a saturated brine solution for up to 16 hours. Once the hides have been penetrated by the salt they are preserved and can be transported to the tannery.
Upon arrival at the tannery (which can be on the other side of the world), the curing process must be reversed. Batches of hides are soaked inside drums of cold water solutions which include salt, detergent and biocide; this process can last from several hours to several days depending on the method used. The water inside the drum is changed once it becomes contaminated and clean solution is added, this is repeated until the water runs clean. The used water must be disposed of, creating environmental pollution.
The next process, known as liming, removes the hairs and unwanted layers of skin from the hide. Sodium sulphide or sodium hydrosulphide is added to the soaked skins and begins to deteriorate the hairs, strong alkalis such as lime and caustic soda are then added to dissolve the hair root and epidermis (the outer layer of skin). The skins must then be washed to remove any unwanted chemicals. Again the solutions applied must be disposed of, causing environmental pollution.
The hides are then put through a fleshing machine which removes any fat and tissues from the skin; this allows maximum penetration during the tanning stage. Ammonium chloride is then added to the skin to neutralise the pH.
Bacterial enzymes are added to the hides to deteriorate muscle fibres; this relaxes and softens the hides. The hides are then put through a scudding machine which drags a dull blade over the surface of the skin to remove any remaining hair rot, skin pigmentation and surface fats.
The hide must be then be tanned to create a material which will not putrefy. There are various types of tans available; the preferred tanning method will depend upon the eventual use of the leather (Lanning, 1996).
Chrome tanning is the most commonly used method for tanning hides; more than 90 per cent of global leather is chrome-tanned (Sunday et al, 2002). Chrome tanning takes place within large drums. Batches of hides are placed in the drums of chromium sulphate solution, and the process can take up to 24 hours which is quicker than vegetable tanning (International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement, 2008). Once the chromium sulphate solution has penetrated the skin, an alkaline chemical such as sodium carbonate or bicarbonate is added to the drum to ensure the tan is permanent (HM Revenues and Customs, 2003).
Vegetable tanning is often touted as environmentally friendly because plant-sources are used in the process. The idea that plant sources are natural and therefore environmentally friendly is being exploited by companies to cash in on the eco-consumer. However, a report from the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies found that vegetable tanning should not be considered more environmentally friendly due to the high pollution load in conventional systems. The report also found that vegetable tanned leather is less easily biodegraded than chrome leather due to the differences in the tanning stages (International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies, 2004).
The hide may then be split, but this will depend upon the final use of the leather. After tanning the leather is put through a shaving machine which levels out the thickness of the skin. The blades of the shaving machine can sometimes leave iron deposits on the skin and so they must be soaked in oxalic acid overnight to dispose of any iron. The final stages of leather production will depend upon the requirements of the finished product. Dyes are then added to large drums with the leather, most of these dyes being synthetic to provide the many different colours sought by the market. Fat liquors are also added to the drums to replace the natural oils lost during the tanning process; this allows the leather to remain flexible. Fat liquors may contain fish oils or animal fats. Once the dyes and fat liquors have been given enough time to penetrate the leather, formic acid is added to the solution to ensure permanent penetration. The hide is then removed from the drums and left to dry, it is now leather and can be used to create products.
The chemicals used in leather production include biocide, sodium sulphate or sodium hydrosulphate, lime and caustic soda, ammonium chloride, bacterial enzymes, chromium sulphate solution, sodium carbonate or bicarbonate, trivalent chromium and oxalic acid. Some of these chemicals can be very dangerous if not handled properly. Due to the high levels of toxicity, some of these chemicals can cause skin burns, blindness and scarring. Some of the chemicals are known carcinogens and can be fatal if swallowed or inhaled. All of these chemicals once used must be disposed of in the environment.
Tannery workers have an increased risk of suffering from skin and melanoma, kidney, bladder, testicular, lung and pancreatic cancers (Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2007). European and UK regulations regarding leather production, effluent, and environmental damage are much stricter than those implemented in developing countries. This is one of the reasons why the tanning industry is relocating to countries such as China and India where environmental regulations are much less strict. Zhang Jingjing is a lawyer at the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, she said that in China, the Guo He River: “Has become polluted with waste from a nearby leather tanning factory. A few years ago, villagers could swim in the river. Now they get blisters on their hands and feet from touching the water. … When you stand close to the river you can smell rotting flesh because the leather factory dumps its sewage, made up from animal skin and meat, untreated into the river.” (New Scientist, 2007)
The film Hell for Leather (2008) found that leather tanneries in Bangladesh (India) were pouring 50 tonnes of tannery effluent and waste water untreated into the Buriganga River every day. The film also shows footage of the tannery workers wearing no protective clothing, wading through vats of solutions containing toxic chemicals. The film claims that 90 per cent of the tannery workers in the film are estimated to be dead by the time they are 50 years old due to the abuse of toxic chemicals (Hell for Leather, 2008).
Developing countries have less (if any) laws governing employment. This means tannery owners are able to put their workers in situations which may be hazardous to their health knowing they will not be held accountable for any problems which may arise as a result. Some countries allow child labour, such as Colombia where there are children as young as five working with these toxic chemicals and suffering burns, intoxification, fumigation, injuries, fractures, amputations and vision impairment (Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2008).
Products added to the leather in its final stages may impact the final consumer. In 2008, a fungicide called dimethyl fumarate placed inside Linkwise sofas to prevent mould during transportation from China caused swelling, burns, blisters and irritation to people across the UK, one victim was only six months old (Bracchi, 2008).
Leather production is an inefficient use of water; a cow can drink up to 127 litres of water a day (Wardle, 2007). Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2008). Leather production uses large volumes of it because water is used in raising and slaughtering the animal, and then even more during the tanning process. Water scarcity affects four out of 10 people on the planet (World Health Organisation, 2008); developing countries suffer the most. Leather tanning is mostly outsourced to developing countries which means that the limited water they have access to is being used industrially, and it also puts people at risk of contaminated water due to the unsafe disposal of effluent.
On average, one cow hide will provide 18 pairs of leather shoes (North American International Livestock Exposition, 2008), and each pair of shoes is accountable for the use of over 1.4 million litres of water. This figure includes the water used to rear and slaughter the cow, and to process the hide into leather. This is a grossly inefficient use of water at a time when access to water is problematic for many people.
Around 80 per cent of the world’s raw hides are produced in developed countries, however it is the developing countries where the hides are processed and tanned to create leather (Garnett, 2007). Leather production involves transporting various elements across the world. Firstly, the UK imports animal feed from across the globe to feed livestock. Once the animals have been slaughtered, the hides and skins are transported from the UK to countries such as India and China where the tanning industry is based. Once tanned the leather is transported as a final product back to developed countries including the UK for sale in shops. One pair of leather shoes could require numerous trips around the globe until they are finally ready to sell.
The vast majority of stylish bags available on the market today are made of leather. Please consider carefully before buying another leather bag, irrespective of it being designer, or a nice brand or fashionable, you will be contributing to the death, environmental damage and horrendous cruelty that is described above.