Over the last several years, a significant effort has gone into exposing animal cruelty that is rampant in the meat, dairy, and fur industries. Less attention, however, has gone into the leather industry, until now. It should be noted that details of cow abuse will be covered, and may be disturbing to some readers.
Video footage showing brutal cow abuse in the leather industry has been circulating on the internet, prompting organizations and individuals to speak out against the cruelty that exists within it, and asking consumers to reconsider purchasing leather goods.
Cow Abuse in the Leather Industry
The video was released as a part of the Manfred Karreman investigation by vegan charity PETA Germany, in an effort to disclose the cruel practices and conditions that the organizations say are rampant in the leather industry .
According to the organization, the animals were transported for weeks from Europe and South America to abattoirs in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and other places, to then have their skins show up on shelves in Europe and the United States.
“[The video footage shows] weak or injured animals being hoisted off a docked ship by one leg with a crane (a process that can break their legs and dislocate their joints) and then dropped onto an abattoir-bound truck,” PETA said about the video .
PETA says that when the animals arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are then pinned to the ground or tied up, and their throats are cut. According to the charity, more than 1.4 billion cows, goats, and sheep, as well as millions of other animals, are killed for leather every year .
Leather- A By-Product of the Meat Industry? Yes and No.
Part of the reason the leather industry has flown under the radar is that there is a common misconception that leather is simply a by-product of the meat industry and that by purchasing it you are actually preventing waste .
Even as people have become increasingly aware of the cruelties of the fur industry, leather has, relatively speaking, remained a popular and sought-after material, in part due to this misguided belief. So where does leather come from?
The primary source for leather are cows, with goats, pigs, and sheep supplementing that supply in order to meet consumer demand. The majority of that leather is, in fact, taken from cows who were killed for their meat or from dairy cows who are no longer producing enough milk to remain profitable.
That being said, the most “luxurious” and sought-after leather comes from newborn veal calves, and even sometimes unborn calves are taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs. This produced the softest, thinnest leather that is more comfortable.
Even though much of the leather on the shelves comes from animals in the meat and dairy industry, saying that leather is a by-product of those industries isn’t exactly correct. Leather is a product just like any other: it is produced in order to meet consumer demand and to make a profit for the businesses involved. That means that if demand is higher than what is produced from the meat and dairy industries, more animals will be slaughtered for their hide alone .
Read: ‘No-Kill’ Lab-Grown Meat To Go On Sale For First Time
The Environmental Impact of Leather
Cow abuse is not the only problem with the leather industry. The environmental impact of leather-making has some serious ramifications as well, which come from two main sources: livestock factory farming, and the processing of leather.
The environmental impact of factory farming is well-documented. It requires immense amounts of energy, with feed making up approximately 75 percent of its energy needs. The remaining 25 percent is needed for other factors like heating, ventilation, and lighting .
Large-scale factory farms have led to a loss of biodiversity, polluted the environment, and consumes massive amounts of scarce resources including land, water, and as previously mentioned, energy .
Animal waste and fertilizers also release large amounts of methane gas and nitrous oxide, both of which are much more potent and damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide .
The processing of leather produces even more environmental concerns. Turning animal skin into leather is called called “tanning“, and requires several chemicals and toxins, including ammonia, cyanide-based dyes, formaldehyde, and lead.
These products end up leaching into the ground and water, and get released into the air, a side-effect that happens more often than not in countries where environmental regulations aren’t enforced .
Cruel for Animals, Cruel for Humans
In addition to cow abuse and other animals involved in the process, the leather industry is cruel to humans too. Many of the tanneries and leather-processing factories are filled with underpaid workers. These include children, who are forced to work in unsafe conditions, and who are exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis .
Jason Baker, who established the Indian branch of PETA in 1999, was not shocked at the horrible way the animals in the video were treated.
“But what still shocked me,” he says of this latest footage, “was that the Bangladesh leather industry doesn’t just mean cruel conditions for animals. We documented workers, including children, performing hazardous tasks such as soaking hides in toxic chemicals and using knives to cut the skins.” 
Sustainable Alternatives to Leather
As the realities of the leather industry have gradually come to light, there has been a push for more sustainable materials to be used in its place.
“Simply put,” says Baker, “there is no such thing as humane leather. No matter where it comes from, leather is the product of a cruel industry. And with so many synthetic materials available today, there’s no need to wear leather at all.” 
Today there are many different vegan alternatives to leather that look and feel just like the real thing, but are cruelty-free. Goodforyou.eco provides a list of eight different types of “leather”, each made from plant sources like pineapple leaves, cork, recycled rubber, mushrooms, apple skins, and coconuts.
Brands like Beyond Skin, Bourgeois Boheme, and Matt and Nat create products like jackets, bags, and shoes from vegan leather that are indistinguishable from the real thing. Whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s a classic leather tote or a stylish biker jacket, you can find a vegan alternative.
Due to its graphic nature, we have not posted the video from PETA. However, if you wish, you can view it here.
Keep Reading: People Are Turning Vegan After Watching Seaspiracy On Netflix, But How Accurate Is The Documentary?
- “New Video Reveals ‘Deeply Disturbing’ Treatment Of Cows Killed For Leather.” Plant Based News. Maria Chiorando. July 10, 2020.
- “Leather Is More Than “a By-Product of the Meat Industry” One Green Planet. 2021.
- “ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE.” CIWF
- Cab Direct
- “Is it time to give up leather?” The Guardian. Lucy Siegle. March 13, 2016
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Hearty Soul in August 2020. It has been republished here with permission.