Leather: Beauty Isn't Only Skin Deep

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Everything But the Moo

Meat producers joke that they make money from "every part of a cow but the moo," and indeed, since red meat consumption has been dropping since the late 1970s, the profits of the meat industry are largely dependent on the sale of animal hides.

Skin accounts for approximately 50 percent of the total byproduct value of cattle. When dairy cows' production declines, their skin is also made into leather; the hides of their offspring, "veal" calves, are made into high-priced calfskin. Thus, the economic success of the slaughterhouse (and the dairy farm) is directly linked to the sale of leather goods.

The Whole Ark

Most leather produced and sold in the United States is made from the skins of cattle and calves, but leather is also made from horses, sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs who are slaughtered for meat. Other species are hunted and killed specifically for their skins, including zebras, bison, water buffaloes, boars, deer, kangaroos, elephants, eels, sharks, dolphins, seals, walruses, frogs, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. Thousands of endangered olive ridley sea turtles are captured and butchered illegally in Mexico solely for their skins. It is estimated that 25-30 percent of imported crocodile shoe leather and other wildlife items are made from endangered, illegally poached animals.

Other "exotic" animals, such as alligators, are "factory farmed" for their skins. Ranched alligators are kept in half-sunken tin-sided structures of cinder blocks on concrete slabs. As many as 600 young alligators may inhabit one building, which reeks of rancid meat, alligator waste, and stagnant water. Although alligators may naturally live 40 to 60 years, on farms they are usually butchered before their fourth birthday.

Humaneness is not a priority of those who poach and hunt animals to obtain their skin or those who transform skin into leather. Alligators on farms may be beaten to death with hammers and axes, sometimes remaining conscious and in agony for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Crocodiles are often caught with huge hooks and wires and reeled in when they become weakened from blood loss or drown. Poachers sometimes kill one species of animal to use as bait to capture another. Snakes and lizards are often skinned alive because of the widespread belief that live flaying imparts suppleness to the finished leather. Flayed snakes have been observed to take more than four days to die. Kid goats may be boiled alive to make kid gloves, and the skins of unborn calves and lambs-some purposely aborted, others from slaughtered pregnant cows and ewes-are considered especially "luxurious."

Tannery Toxins

Although leathermakers like to tout their products as "biodegradable" and "eco-friendly," the process of tanning stabilizes the collagen or protein fibers so that they actually stop biodegrading.

Until the late 1800s, animal skin was air- or salt-dried and tanned with vegetable tannins or oil, but today animal skin is turned into finished leather with a variety of much more dangerous substances, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.

More than 95 percent of leather produced in the U.S. is chrome-tanned. All wastes containing chromium are considered hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition to the toxic substances mentioned above, tannery effluent also contains large amounts of other pollutants, such as protein, hair, salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids.

Among the disastrous consequences of this noxious waste is the threat to human health from the highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde in the ground water near tanneries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average.

People who work in tanneries are dying of cancer caused by exposure to dimethylformamide and other toxic chemicals used to process and dye the leather. The coal tar derivatives used are extremely potent cancer-causing agents. According to a study released by the New York State Department of Health, more than half of all testicular cancer victims work in tanneries.

The leather industry also uses a tremendous amount of energy. The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology states, "On the basis of quantity of energy consumed per unit of product produced, the leather-manufacturing industry would be categorized with the aluminum, paper, steel, cement, and petroleum-manufacturing industries as a gross consumer of energy."

This does not even take into account the waste and pollution involved in raising the animals whose skins eventually become leather. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are consumed in livestock production. (By contrast, plastic wearables account for only a fraction of 1 percent of the petroleum used in the U.S.)15 Trees are cleared to create pastureland, vast quantities of water are used, and feedlot and dairy farm runoff are a major source of water pollution.


As evidenced by a May 1990 poll in Parents magazine-in which 69 percent of those polled said they were against killing animals for leather-more and more people are realizing that leather is something we can do without. There are many alternatives, including cotton, linen, rubber, ramie, canvas, and synthetics. Chlorenol (called Hydrolite by Avia and Durabuck by Nike), used in athletic and hiking shoes, is an exciting new material that's perforated for breathability, will stretch around the foot with the same "give" as leather, provides good support, and is machine washable.

Vegan shoes and accessories are inexpensive-up to 60 to 75 percent cheaper than leather. Some, like Déja Shoes (call 503-682-8814 for retailers near you), are even made from recycled materials.

Where to Shop

Leather alternatives can be found just about anywhere you might shop. But some places, such as discount shoe and variety stores like Payless Shoe Source, Fayva, Kmart, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart, offer larger selections. Designers like Liz Claiborne, Capezio, Sam & Libby, Unlisted, and Nike (call 1-800-344-NIKE for a current list of vegan styles) offer an array of nonleather handbags, wallets, and shoes.

For more shopping tips, send for The Compassionate Shopper (Beauty Without Cruelty, 175 W. 12th St., #16G, New York, NY 10011-8275), or send $3 to the Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203, for "A Shopper's Guide to Leather Alternatives." (The guide can also be downloaded for free from VRG's Web site at www.vrg.org.)

The following is a list of mail-order companies that specialize in nonleather clothing and accessories:

Aesop, Inc.
P.O. Box 315; N. Cambridge, MA 02140; 617-628-8030

The Ohio Hempery
7002 State Rte. 329; Guysville, OH 45735; 800-BUY-HEMP

Creatureless Comforts
702 Page St.; Stoughton, MA 02072; 617-344-7496

7829 Woodmont Ave.; Bethesda, MD 20814; 301-652-3181; www.pangeaveg.com

7015 Ordan Dr.; Unit 12-14; Mississauga, Ontario; L5T 1Y2 Canada; 800-665-9182

Tomorrow's World
194 E. Ocean View Ave.; Norfolk, VA 23503; 800-229-7571

Heartland Products
Box 218; Dakota City, IA 50529; 800-441-4692

Used Rubber USA
597 Haight St.; San Francisco, CA 94117; 415-626-7855

Newport News
Avon La.; Hampton, VA 02072; 800-688-2830

Vegetarian Shoes
12 Gardner St.; Brighton BN1 1UP; England; 011-441-273-691913

Slaughterhouse 16 [ 43.24 Kb ]



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