For a long time I assumed that leather was just a ‘byproduct’ of the beef industry — the cows were being killed for meat anyway, so why not use the leather rather than just throw it away?
While this seems like a safe assumption, it’s actually not the whole story. Similar to the situation with chickens, we’re living in a very ‘specialized,’ globalized moment, where cows who are used for different purposes are all very different creatures living in very different circumstances. For reasons discussed below, it’s actually way more likely that the leather on your Nikes came from a cow in India or China than from a beef cow in Ohio.
The majority of leather
It’s surprising that, given how much beef is consumed in the US, most of the leather we encounter likely came from animals killed overseas.
In fact, half of the world’s leather comes from China and India, where human, animal, and environmental welfare protections are depressingly lax. Why do we get our leather from so far away? Because it’s cheaper. With fewer regulations and lower standards, the price-per-skin is way lower for an animal in these countries than it is in the US. And another factor making this foreign leather cheaper is that you might not even be wearing the animal you think you’re wearing — often times people will unwittingly be wearing cat and dog fur or leather coming out of China, that has been intentionally mislabeled as cow leather or faux fur to avoid freaking out American consumers.
But probably one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen was video taken of ‘spent’ dairy cows in India being transported to be processed for leather. In my bumbling Western overgeneralization, I had assumed that cows in India were all treated pretty well. Sadly, not these poor cows. Because keeping these cows well-fed and healthy was no longer profitable, since they were shortly going to be slaughtered for leather, the folks transporting them didn’t want to ‘waste’ any food or water on them. Some of the cows became so weak that they could no longer bear to stand, at which point the transporters rubbed chili pepper into their eyes, so that the severity of the pain would force them to jump to their feet. Even for somebody who is ok with ‘humanely’ killing cows for food, the practices used by the leather industry are pretty difficult to stomach.
(More info on all of this here. This link itself isn’t graphic, but be forewarned that the sources it links to can be really upsetting to read/watch.)
Leather from American factory farms
While the majority of leather you encounter in stores probably comes from overseas, factory farms in the US do also sell the skin of the cows that they slaughter. Selling these hides is an important component of what keeps factory farms profitable and going strong.
So if you’re someone who has decided to eat humane meat, you may want to seriously reconsider buying leather products, because if you do, your dollars could well be going to support the same factory farms that you otherwise oppose.
“Tanning” — not just for humans
I hadn’t thought about it much, but one day it struck me — why does leather even ‘work’ as a material? If I took the skin off a chicken, or a dog, or any other animal, and tried to wear it around town, it would quickly putrefy and get really, really gross. So why was this cow skin magically immune to rotting?
We can thank our ancestors for figuring out how to preserve animal skin, using a process called “tanning,” which turns cow hide from rotting flesh into a usable material. This development was extremely helpful to early humans, who didn’t have many other clothing options.
However, nowadays tanning is rarely done the old fashioned way, using locally collected organic compounds. Instead, the leather industry relies on harsh chemicals, which create much more durable leather than the old-timey methods did. But these chemicals are also extremely damaging to the environment, and to the workers who handle them. Leather tanneries are causing great harm to some of the most impoverished people and communities on our planet, particularly in China, India, and Bangladesh — including giving tannery workers cancer and gaping holes in their skin from chromium exposure. So for folks who are concerned about the impact of their purchases on factory workers and the environment, leather has become material-non-grata, regardless of whether they’re meat eaters or not.
People rightly point out that certain leather alternatives are guilty of many of the same sins as leather itself: a fast-fashion faux leather jacket purchased cheaply at a big box store is likely to have been made with material produced from environmentally harmful petrochemicals, assembled by workers in poor conditions, or could even be constructed from intentionally mislabeled real animal material.
Most vegans are aware of and concerned about this reality, so we’ve devised a few different strategies to deal with it.
Just don’t buy any new leather
As discussed elsewhere on this wiki, nearly every single vegan was non-vegan at some point, which means we’ve done non-vegan things and have non-vegan stuff. Some vegans make the decision to keep using the “pre-gan” items that they had purchased before deciding to stop supporting animal products, until these items finally wear out, since the harm has ‘already been done.’ So for folks taking that route, they don’t need to figure out leather ‘alternatives,’ per se, and rather just continue to use the leather products they already have.
However, it’s also worth noting that some vegans don’t love this approach. First of all, there’s the “other people” problem: if I wear a cool looking pre-gan leather jacket (or even a realistic looking faux leather one), somebody might see it, like it, and be inspired to go out and buy a new leather jacket for themselves. Secondly, there’s the “ick” factor. Once I start thinking of leather as the skin of an animal whom I don’t want to harm, it becomes pretty sad, gross, and difficult to continue putting it on my body.
Personally, I took any nice leather stuff that I had and consigned it, and donated the money I got from the consignment to an animal well-being organization that I support. It’s not like there’s a perfect answer, and other people definitley choose different approaches. That’s just what I decided to do for myself.
But sometimes you really need something, and many of the obvious options include leather, as often happens with shoes or outdoor gear. Here’s where the internet is your friend! By googling animal-free alternatives, I’ve always found a great, stylish and/or high-performance option that didn’t force me to support the leather industry.
For bonus points, buying secondhand items is a great way to help the environment, animals, and your pocketbook. Local thrift stores are a great resource, as is Patagonia worn wear. Check out what secondhand businesses are in your town — you might be surprised by what you find! We’re even lucky enough to have a secondhand gear store, where we’ve found quality used specialty items like climbing shoes and a tent.
Don’t have as much stuff, and keep it for longer
Even for folks who want to continue supporting the leather industry, a solid choice for the well-being of ourselves and our world is to avoid over-consumption. Do you really need 10 purses, or 50 pairs of shoes? Probably not. Whether these items are made from animal products or not, buying them has a negative impact on our world. So simply cutting back is always a great option to reduce the harm that we cause (with the added bonus of making it easier to keep our homes clean!).