The meat and dairy industries like to say that leather is a “byproduct”. But, is it?
Their arguments for this largely revolve around the following:
- Cowhide makes less money than beef.
- If we didn’t use leather, we would still farm cows for their meat, so the hide would go to waste.
However, an alternate view is that the meat and dairy industries promote the belief that leather is “simply a byproduct” of meat to make buying leather products feel more ethical.
While it may be true that more cowhides would go to waste if people bought beef and not leather, framing this in terms of society being “wasteful” is not an accidental stance nor a choice of words.
Most people agree that being wasteful is bad, and many of us strive to make the most of what we have and recycle where we can. But the environment is not the only thing we need to consider here. Leather is an animal product, and buying it supports the meat industry.
This means that if you have issues with the inhumane practices of meat production on factory farms, you should probably have them with leather production too. The animals suffer the same treatment. It is not automatically more ethical to simply not waste.
Reducing waste may be one thing, but turning cowhide into leather takes work. And there are environmental implications to that. The process, for example, uses many toxic chemicals that find their way into the ecosystem, where they have a knock-on effect on our waterways and wildlife.
Billions in Profit
Leather is NOT a small industry. It is worth hundreds of billions of pounds and makes up to 10% of the profit on every cow on a factory farm. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to call it an ethical byproduct. It helps to keep factory farms profitable. And these farms, as part of the beef and dairy industries, are well known to be horrendous for causing animals and the environment to suffer.
It’s not just cows…
Leather also comes from goats, sheep, lambs, rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, seals, deer, kangaroos, snakes, alligators, and the list goes on. Over a billion of these animals are killed on factory farms primarily for their skins every year. Here there is absolutely no argument that leather is a byproduct.
Do you know where your leather came from?
It can be hard to tell. Labels rarely give you all the information. For example, “genuine leather” does not always come from cows, and “Italian leather” does not always come from animals raised and killed in Italy.
This is a bigger problem because animal welfare laws vary from country to country. In many cases, animals are marched or transported hundreds of miles, and dying from malnutrition, disease, or exhaustion is not uncommon for the ones unlucky enough to be born into this system that we have created.
What should we use instead?
Leather is popular because it implies luxury and durability, but there are many alternatives, including cotton, linen and denim, and with the proper care, these products can last a long time. Synthetic leathers also exist, though plastic-based synthetics do come with their own environmental issues and support the fossil fuel industry. That said, they are still arguably a more ethical purchase than animal leather, especially when the plastic is recycled.
The ultimate goal is to create a vegan leather that doesn’t use crude oils, plastics or toxic chemicals while also being accessible and durable, and we are close to achieving that. Mushroom leather is a great example. It can be grown very quickly and sustainably and actually outperforms animal leather in durability and strength. This is a new technology, but it is rapidly gaining traction, and there are already products on the market.
Other plant-based leathers made from pineapple, orange, apple, cork, agave and coffee are also gaining popularity with their own products. Some of these come with a plastic (polyurethane) coating to improve durability, while others use a water-based one. It’s always best to read the label or ask in-store! Many ethical, cruelty-free and vegan companies offer these products, and it’s well worth checking out what’s going on so you can make an informed choice.
Post by Darren Talbot, OneKind Volunteer.