Once dairy cows are no longer profitable, they are then sold to be slaughtered and skinned. This practice includes slaughtering unborn calves, their mothers, and even cows that are not used in the supply chain for meat consumption or dairy production. Globally, the demand for leather products is projected to be a $128.61 billion industry by 2022, way higher than the 2018 figure of $95.4 billion. Further, the United States, by 2022, is projected to also capture just more than 10% of the industry or about $13.1 billion. As consumers, we have a significant stake in the health of the leather industry.
From footwear to automobile seats, leather products are intertwined with everyday life. As one may suspect, countries like China, Brazil, Italy, Russia and India are the leading exporters of leather products. In fact, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the Council for Leather Exports have found that leather exports in India are ten times greater than its meat exports. The implication is, essentially, cows, in India, are being killed purely for their skin. This is despite the large Hindu population and positive symbolism often association with cows. Clearly, the religious connotations are not superseding market forces.
When firms manufacture leather from cowhides, many deadly toxins are released. In the United States, most leather is produced by chrome-tanning. Chrome-tanning uses chemicals such as tar, formaldehyde, and dyes that produces a lethal byproduct — chromium. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the waste creates “dead zones”. Dead zones are run-off chemicals that result in the “overgrowth of plant life in water systems”. This overgrowth of plant life depletes oxygen levels and alters the ecosystem irreparably.
However, the damage doesn’t stop there. Often, workers in nearby tanneries are at risk for higher rates of cancer due to exposure of these chemicals. For example, in Kentucky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that residents were five times more likely to develop leukemia than the average person in the United States, simply because they lived in the same vicinity. Similarly, in a medical report, several doctors stated that childhood leukemia could be a preventable disease if public health awareness about the dangers of certain chemicals was more well known.
Even if you consider alternatives — such as, vegan leather —it is still terrible. Although no cows are being slaughtered, it is produced synthetically with use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. These plastics leach overtime, which are harmful to consumers and the environment. However, the advantage of vegan leather is the ability to source products in a less harmful manner.
To elaborate, better sources do exist to buy leather, whether it be from animal products or faux. In Fez, Morocco, tanning is produced less harmfully. The skin is soaked in a cow urine mixture and then pigeon poop mixture before being colored by natural vegetable dyes and dried in the sun. For vegans, Stella McCartney has pursued Eco Faux Leather targeted to make faux leather from biodegradable, non-toxic materials.
Simply put, we encourage consumers to understand and research products before they buy them. I know I will not be buying leather products anytime soon.