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19 May 2020

The Disturbing Truth About Leather: Stop Buying It!

The fashion world is going fur-free. But the fashion houses are still struggling to ditch the leather. Why are animal skins not getting the same attention as animal fur? Leather is no more ethical than fur, so why the holdup?

Is leather that bad? Yes! Millions of animals are killed every year for their hides. Not only cows but exotic and endangered animals too. Leather is detrimental to the environment. Its production wreaks havoc on local ecosystems and carries a large carbon footprint. Manufacture of leather is hazardous for the tannery workers and local communities also. The chemicals used severely damage workers and local residents' health.


leather is more cruel than vegan leathers

Leather is still prevalent in the modern fashion world. Even some vegans struggle to let go of their favourite leather pieces. But how much do you actually know about the leather industry? In this article, we delve into the dark underbelly of the leather industry. 



Why is Leather Bad and Why Should People Ditch It?


There are several big issues with leather. The production of leather has adverse effects on animals and wildlife. It destroys the environment. Workers in tanneries are at constant risk of injury and disease. Local communities near tanneries also suffer. 


Animals Suffer Terribly


Some people who defend leather say "the skins come from animals being killed anyway". Yes, the meat and dairy industry does supply skins to the leather industry, but this isn't the whole truth.


Cows in captivity for leather manufacture


It's not only cows that are used for leather. All types of domestic and exotic animals have their skins taken, including:

  • Pigs
  • Goats
  • Sheep
  • Crocodiles
  • Snakes
  • Stingrays
  • Seals
  • Emus
  • Deer
  • Fish
  • Kangaroos
  • Horses
  • Cats
  • Dogs

Yes, you read that right. Cats and dogs are also used for leather in certain parts of the world like China.

We're often told that leather is a by-product of the meat industry. In some countries, killing animals purposely for their skins is standard practice.

In 2009, Greenpeace discovered something shocking in Brazil. They found that cowhides accounted for 25% of the cattle industry there. Making the cow's hide more profitable than the actual meat.

Leather is not always a "by-product" of the meat industry, it is also a "co-product". When you buy leather, you create more demand for factory farming. You actually improve the profitability of slaughterhouses.

The softest and most luxurious leather products come from the skin of baby calves. The male calf gets slaughtered shortly after birth before getting skinned.

Do you buy leather made from exotic animals? Such as crocodiles and snakes? These animals get killed only for their skins.

There are now incredible vegan leather alternatives to choose from. Is there any need to subjugate animals to these horrors anymore?

Leather is Heavy on Carbon Emissions, and It's Production Results in Heavy Toxic Pollution 


Around 80% of all leather produced in the world gets tanned using chrome. This is a toxic process that creates vast amounts of harmful waste. This waste is then released into the environment via waterways such as rivers or lakes.


leather is polluting the environment


The conventional method of chrome tanning results in severe water pollution. The toxic waste is devastating to the natural environment and local wildlife.

Chromium water waste is both toxic and carcinogenic. It pollutes the local water sources that are integral to the survival of the local ecosystem.

Most leather in the world comes from the countries China, India, and Bangladesh. Three countries that have poor environmental protection standards.

It is not uncommon for tanneries to dump toxic waste in nearby rivers or lakes. This is standard practice for many tanneries.

Greenhouse gas emissions are also a big issue. Producing the raw leather for a pair of shoes uses 10kg of C02. The C02 emissions for leather, including cattle farming, is 110kg C02e/m2 of leather.

PETA reports that "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,"

Some people and companies claim leather is sustainable. The research and data do not support such claims.

Alternative vegan leathers are far less damaging to the planet. The carbon emissions emitted are lower. Water eutrophication and water scarcity are less intensive.

The alternative materials that are currently used for vegan leather include:

  • PVC
  • PU
  • Cork
  • Lorica
  • Waxed cotton
  • Recycled rubber
  • Recycled ocean plastic
  • Oranges, apples and pineapples
  • Paper
  • Mushrooms
  • Tree bark
  • Cactus

These materials are helping vegan fashion brands create high-quality goods. Such as vegan backpacks, vegan leather wallets and faux leather jackets.

Many of these materials have 1/3 of the environmental impact compared to animal leather.


Workers Are Vulnerable to Dangerous Injuries, Diseases, and Cancer


The toxic process of chrome tanning requires workers. Those workers include small children. Workers are exposed to poisonous chromium, a known carcinogen.


Photo by 
Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash


These dangers are exposed in the documentary "The Toxic Price of Leather". The disastrous effects of chromium on the workers are simply devastating.

Workers spend most of their days standing barefoot in pools of chemicals. They risk developing chronic skin diseases. Some workers start at the age of 13 and work in the tanneries all their lives.

These people have inadequate or non-existent worker protections. Accidents and illnesses are prevalent in tanneries. Frequent accidents can include:

  • Slips and falls
  • Injury from heavy machinery
  • Exposure to tanning liquor, acids, solvents, disinfectants, and other harmful chemicals

When chromium gets inhaled, it acts as a lung irritant. It increases the person's chance of respiratory diseases and cancer. Chromium is linked to:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Enlargement of the hilar region and lymph nodes
  • Pharyngitis
  • Polyps of the upper respiratory tract

Chromium is also detrimental to the skin. Once absorbed, it causes severe dryness, flaking, and cracking of the skin. It can also create erosive ulcerations, known as "chrome holes".

Communities Are Exposed to Polluted Water and Air 


Tanneries also affect those living nearby. Entire communities can develop severe health issues. When they use local water sources, they risk infection and disease.



Residents in the US that reside near tanneries were found to be in terrible danger. Researchers found that that people were five times as likely to develop leukaemia.

In Europe, they found similar issues. Residents in Italian tannery towns were 20-50% more likely to develop lung cancer.

The effects on local communities in India, China and Bangladesh are devastating.

Waterways become polluted with chromium. Local residents who depend on that water are then put in extreme danger. They risk developing respiratory diseases and infections such as blisters, infertility. Birth defects are also common.

Local wildlife also suffers. Fish numbers become depleted, an important food source for both animals and residents. Local farmlands suffer from air pollution. Soils become polluted in which the food grows that feeds the local community.

In a copy of the New Scientist, a Chinese lawyer for the Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims describes the situation in a tannery town in China:

"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. Leather factories dump its sewage, made up of animal skin and meat, untreated into the river."

In Hazaribagh, a small town in Bangladesh produces 90% of the country's leather exports. An industry worth $600m to the country.

Hazaribagh is in the top five most polluted places on earth. 90% of the residents living there die before the age of 50.

Is all this worth a pair of leather shoes, wallet or handbag?

What's the Alternative to Leather?


There are now several vegan alternatives to leather. You can find them all summed up in our guide on all vegan leathers currently in existence.


White trainers and handbag made from vegan leather


You can now buy anything from a vegan backpack to a vegan leather jacket using these vegan leathers. Each of these materials has significantly less impact on the planet. Most make use of recycled or by-product materials where possible. 

Vegan leather is rising in popularity and for a good reason. You can now buy all your favourite leather pieces made from eco-materials. You will hardly notice the difference. 

Final Thoughts

Each time we choose a product to buy, we’re making a statement about who we are. We’re voting for the type of world we want to live in. In 2020, conventional leather should have no place in our lives.

The adverse effects of leather production have enormous implications. Not only for animals but people, entire communities, our environment and wildlife. There are now so many great vegan leather products to choose from. Why would anyone choose animal leather?

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