What’s Wrong with Leather?

Are you a vegan? Vegetarian? If so then I expect that you already have your views on why leather is ‘bad’. It is a by-product, sometimes referred to as a co-product, of the animal food industry. This article explains more about the ‘down’ side to leather – the well-known product that is used for all sorts of items, from furniture, car seats and belts to shoes, clothing and handbags.

What is leather?

First of all, what is it? Leather is a material created through the tanning of hides, pelts and skins of animals, primarily cows – but… whose skin are you in? When the milk production of cows on dairy farms decreases, the cows are killed and their skins are made into leather. The hides of their calves, who are frequently raised for veal, are made into high-priced calfskin.

Leather is also made from horses, sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs who are slaughtered for meat. Other species of animals are hunted and killed specifically for their skins, including zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, kangaroos, elephants, eels, sharks, dolphins, seals, walruses, frogs, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes.

But, you say, it looks good and feels good – sitting in your leather couch, your leather car seat, paying your bills with that calf-skin wallet, carrying that leather handbag or briefcase. How about that it wears well? Kangaroo leather is favoured by motorcyclists specifically because of its lighter weight and higher abrasion resistance as compared to cowhide. Leather car seats last longer than material ones, don’t they?

There are yes and no comments to that. Leather needs to be chemically treated to ensure it does not rot.

Since ancient times, human beings used animal skins and learned to make them into leather through the chemically intensive process called tanning. The leather making is a combination of series of processes that starts from skin recovery to curing, soaking and unhairing, deliming and bathing, to vegetable or mineral tanning, lubrication and dyeing, and finally to finishing.

Leather is bad for human health

Mordants and other chemicals often used to treat leather are linked to nervous disorders, asthma, premature death, gynaecological disorders, weakness, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, skin and respiratory infections, cancer and other serious illnesses.

According to an investigation by the New York State Department of Health, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other agencies, those who work in tanneries may be greatly increasing their risk of testicular cancer. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in an area near one Kentucky leather tannery, the incidence of leukaemia was five times the national average. Hmm… perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to purchase that leather lounge suite?

Leather is bad for the environment

Although some leather makers deceptively tout their products as “eco-friendly,” turning skin into leather also requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals. Often, animal skins used for leather are kept from biodegrading (going rotten) by using a variety of dangerous substances, including mineral salts (chromium, aluminium, iron and zirconium), formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes, some of which are cyanide-based. All waste containing chromium is considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other bodies.

In an attempt to appear environmentally conscious, some tanneries are now trying to make improvements, but even if tanneries did not create any pollution, leather would still be bad for the environment. A spokesperson for the largest supplier of leather to automakers in the US said, ‘The last thing we want is people thinking we’re burning down rain forests for cattle just to put leather in big sport-utes’. But consider this: nearly half of all water used in the US is used to raise animals for meat and leather!

According to the EPA, factory farms are the biggest source of pollution of rivers, streams and lakes. In December 1997, the US Senate Agricultural Committee released a report that stated that animals raised for food and leather produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population – without the benefit of waste-treatment systems. A Scripps Howard synopsis of the report stated, ‘Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated’.

Locally, since 1988, some 30 tanneries in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, the Sudan, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have received assistance in pollution control focused on the establishment or upgrading of effluent treatment facilities.

It all sounds pretty dodgy, but what can we use instead of animal leather that is better for us, the animals, and the planet?

What about the alternatives?

Many pseudo-leather materials have been developed, allowing those who wish to wear leather-like garments to do so without actually wearing leather. One example of this is vegan microfiber, which claims to be stronger than leather when manufactured with strength in mind. Vinyl materials, Pleather, Durabuck, NuSuede, Hydrolite, and other alternatives exist, providing some features similar to leather.

Faux leather made by Ultrafabrics has, according to the company’s Web site, ‘features to protect the environment like a 100% biodegradable backcloth, no plasticizers, no stabilizers, no adhesives, extensive recycling in the manufacturing process-and no need for potentially toxic after-care’.

You want non-leather handbags, shoes, wallets, belts… there are many reputable companies out there to help you with your new choices. Check out the Internet for names. Yes a lot are in the US and the UK but you can order safely online. There are plenty of places in South Africa where you can buy faux leather articles… do a search on Google to find out for yourself!

When you buy shoes, check out what they are made of. There should be a label on the bottom or the inside to tell you if the shoe is produced from man-made materials or leather. If you don’t see the label, just ask the store manager what they are made from. That is what I do. I always explain that I need to know because I am allergic to leather (morally allergic that is).

What about the leather car seats? Can’t order faux leather for them. True. But there are alternatives. Even in high-end vehicles, leather seats are becoming something of an anachronism. Leather seats are hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Yes I know you can get them heated and cooled… but why not help the environment (and the animals too if you care for them) by buying non-leather seats.

Final thought

Wearing leather hurts animals, the environment, and the people who produce it. Care for the planet and all the species who inhabit it by buying readily-available alternatives.

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