“We must not refuse with our eyes, what they must endure with their bodies”
- Gretchen Wyler

Our civilization’s relationship with leather, wool and feathers has deep roots. After all, our ancestors’ first clothes were all made from animal skin and fur. Today, we still look at leather and wool with high regard, having associated them with durability, class, and a sophisticated taste.
However, as the human population ballooned, industries also blossomed to satisfy the demand for these products. This led to questionable practices on animals, people, and the environment involved in this gigantic industry.
As more people become aware of these realities, calls and efforts for better and more just alternatives have also shaken the industry. What are the truths about the leather and wool industry that have prompted such urgent demands? Here are some of the disturbing facts.

Animal welfare
Most apologies for the leather and wool industry emphasize that these are harmless “by-products” of the bigger livestock industry. They claim that raw materials for leather and wool production were simply retrieved from farms and butcheries so they don’t go to waste.
But a closer look at the industry reveals that leather and wool are “co-products” rather than by-products This is because a significant portion of these industries’ income comes from their production. The reality is that more animals are being raised for their skin, which means that the industries are responding to a demand, rather than simply reducing their wastes and turning them into leather and wool. 

In fact, the profit margin for these products is so high that the industries are transforming their practices to optimize their production. This has led to the horrifying treatment of the animals in this system. 
For instance, most animals are crammed into dark and cramped pens. Because they are packed so close together, some have their teeth, tails, and horns removed to keep their skin blemish-free. Many animals are also injected with chemicals and hormones for this purpose.  Practises like being skinned alive, tails and horns removed, injection with chemicals or hormones are not uncommon and by trapping these animals into this profit- driven system they are denied the legal protection and welfare given to most other animals.

Workers’ safety
Because most raw materials for leather and wool are sourced overseas where labor laws are lax, it is likely that those elegant luxury moccasins on display on high-street were made by underpaid and overworked workers under harsh and brutal conditions.

Making leather is not a particularly pleasant job. It involves tanning, where raw skin and hide are subjected to various chemical processes to keep them from decomposing. Modern tanners use chromium salts which are made from chromium (a kind of metal) and other chemicals. Exposure to chromium fumes can have serious effects on the human respiratory and reproductive systems, including cancer.
Add to that low pay, lack of social security, and unclean work environments, and what you’ll have is a horrible experience. The fact that multinational companies make millions from such practices is enough reason to make one think twice about these products.

Aside from questionable labor conditions, the leather and wool industry also thrives on the lax environmental practices in the places where they are produced.
For instance, in the city of Kanpur in India where the leather and wool industry serves as an economic backbone, 40 million liters of tannery wastewater are treated per day. Meanwhile, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 22 cubic meters of toxic waste flow from the city’s factories to the main river. These products not only have deleterious effects on the environment but also on the people who live near the river.

The tanneries are not the only culprits. Since the leather and wool industry is dependent on the livestock industry, we should also acknowledge the connection between the two industries For instance, it is estimated that the global livestock industry is responsible for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. These gases include methane which is 23 times stronger CO2 when it comes to its warming effect. Massive amounts of animal runoff from wastes also affect health and soil quality in affected areas through acidification and antibiotic exposure.
The resources needed to produce leather and wool are also taxing on our dwindling water resources. It is estimated that producing 1 kilo’gram of leather requires 17,000 litres of water. That is a significant amount considering how fast our water resources are being depleted.

The silver lining
Fortunately, there have been steps to improve the conditions of leather and wool production.
One such step is improving transparency on the part of the manufacturers. Some industry-wide certifications and standard labels such as Leather Working Group and Textiles exchange’s Responsible Leather, Down and Wool and JBS Couros’s Kind Leather, have been established to compel them to tell where they source their materials and where they have been manufactured. Hopefully, this will help buyers in making more informed choices.

There is also a visible rise in vegan options, some of which in some cases are even eco- friendly and use recycled materials. Among them we find materials like Pinatex, Muskin and ultrasuede.
The industry continues to accommodate new and innovative players whose entire identities are based on ethical production. Even major brands such as Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Vivienne Westwood have made efforts towards this direction. As the demand for such products continues to rise, we can expect this trend to continue across the spectrum.

After all, the key to shifting the leather and wool industry towards more sustainable and ethical directions lies in consumer awareness. If more consumers become conscious of how their clothes were made, they will be more inclined to reduce their consumption of leather and wool. This also means knowing how to take care of purchased products to make them last longer as well as buying more sustainable alternatives.

The future holds
It’s a long way ahead but these small advancements can change the industry bit by bit.
It’s up to us which legacy we want to leave behind to future generations and how we respond to the truth when it is revealed is what defines us as humans who share this world with nature and all other living creatures.
If we demand more transparent and less complex supply chains, cruelty free production and eco- friendly vegan alternatives the industry will have no choice but to follow.

Photo credits: Paola Kudacki

All images copyright and courtesy of Paola Kudack.