It is easy to forget that our leather shoes, bags, wallets, and jackets are made out of someone’s skin. Leather is most commonly made from the skin of slaughtered cattle, as well as goats, sheep, and even pigs. Leather labelling is often very minimal, and across the world, other animals are slaughtered for their skins, too – including dogs.

Leather is a co-product of the meat and dairy industries, and it is sold for a profit. The myth that leather is a by-product falsely claims that buying leather does not financially support animal cruelty or slaughter, however this is simply not true. The global leather industry is worth 95.4 billion USD, and unless we begin to make kinder fashion choices, is set to reach a value of 128.61 billion USD by 2022. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and the more ethical and sustainable vegan leather industry is growing enormously.

If we wouldn’t wear a jacket, a watch strap or shoes made from the skin of a dog or a cat, why a cow or a goat? All animals deserve kindness and respect. 

A rescued steer, and a vegan watch strap made from pineapple leaves, made by Time IV Change.
(Image:
Willow Creative Co)

While other animals are used for leather, bovine animals like cattle have their skins made into clothing, furniture and accessories more than any other. These gentle, sociable animals enjoy playing, get excited when they learn, and can live to be about 20 years old. 

As more people choose kind, vegan leather alternatives, some slaughterhouses have not been able to sell the skins of cattle, and have lost millions of dollars. This shows the power of our purchasing choices. But let’s go back a little, and understand the industries which produce leather: meat and dairy. 

It can be easy to forget that our leather products are made from sentient animals, who were raised and slaughtered in the meat and dairy industries. 

Breeding and artificial insemination

In both the beef and dairy industries, cows are often forcibly impregnated. In the dairy industry, artificial insemination is the norm. Of course, for cows to produce milk, they must be pregnant. Cows are just like every other mammal, humans included, only producing milk for their babies.

When breeding cattle, bulls are forced into the exploitive practice of ‘electro-ejaculation’. A probe is forced into a bull’s rectum, and it vibrates and stimulates him until he involuntarily ejaculates.

His semen is then forced into the vagina of a cow, who is restrained and unable to escape, and deposited at the opening of her cervix. The farmer’s other hand is pushed into her rectum to aid in this process. 

In the dairy industry, this stressful and exploitative procedure is repeated annually, until the fertility of dairy cows decreases, or their body physically fails, and they are slaughtered.

‘Spent’ mother cows on a truck to the abattoir. 

Painful procedures

It is legal, standard practice for cattle to be dehorned while fully conscious, and without pain relief. Dehorning is performed to make cattle more easy to control, and is performed on calves younger than six months old with searing, smoking hot cautery irons, gouging knives or sharp ‘scoop’ dehorners.

Cattle are also painfully branded for identification purposes, with metal irons pressed against their sensitive skin that are either extremely hot from sitting in flames, or extremely cold from sitting in liquid nitrogen. Again, no pain relief is legally required.

Male cattle are castrated on farms as this prevents unwanted mating and allows for genetic control and easier handling of animals. The most common method of castration in Australia is simply with the use of a scalpel or knife which slices open the scrotum and cuts out the testicles of a completely conscious, in pain animal. Extremely tight bands which cut blood flow, and a pincer which crushes the spermatic cord and blood vessels, are also used.


A cow being painfully branded with a hot iron.

Separating and slaughtering calves

While cattle in the beef industry are bred and raised to be slaughtered at about 18 months old, in the dairy industry calves are killed even younger; about 400,000  practically newborn bobby calves are slaughtered every year in Australia. 

Because dairy cows must be pregnant to produce milk, the industry breeds hundreds of thousands of calves every year. 50% of these calves are of course, male, and will never produce milk. Further, only three quarters of the female calves are raised to become milking cows themselves. Most calves are separated from their mothers within 24 hours of being together. 

Calf and mother separation is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly stressful experience for both animals, and one which results in extended feelings of depression for calves and grief for mothers, who are known to chase vehicles taking their young from them. 

A mother cow and her calf together, as they deserve.

All of these deemed ‘useless’ calves are slaughtered either at around five days old, or they are raised for veal meat. Calves younger than five days of age can be slaughtered on farm, or older than five days in a slaughterhouse, shot with a rifle or a captive bolt gun in both scenarios. Calves younger than 24 hours old can be slaughtered on farm using blunt-force trauma with a hammer or metal pole. Calves slaughtered for veal are slaughtered at about 6-8 months of age, and sometimes are raised in sheds for their entire short lives.


Australian calves at a veal farm, drinking powdered milk as they have been separated from their mothers.

Much of the highest quality leather comes from these baby cows as their extreme youth means their skin is very soft. Otherwise considered ‘wastage’ by the dairy industry, calves are skinned for their ‘valuable hides’, coveted by a fashion industry intent on turning skin into bags, shoes and purses. 

In fact, the leather industry has even stated that some luxury bag makers raise calves specifically for their skin, in which case ‘a calf is raised in a pen and never goes outside, so [their] skin is blemish-free’. 

Mother cow Clarabelle and her baby, Valentine, at Edgar’s Mission sanctuary. 

Slaughter

After approximately 7 years, dairy cows are considered ‘spent’ and are sent to the slaughterhouse, where bobby calves and cattle raised for beef also see their bloody end.

Cattle are slaughtered in an abattoir with a captive-bolt pistol which shoots into their brain, stunning them. A cow must then have their throat cut open so that they bleed out, killing them. If slaughterhouse workers take too long to sever a major neck vessel, a cow can regain consciousness and bleed out while conscious.

Cattle awaiting their death in the knocking box at an abattoir know what is coming next.


Environmental Exploitation

The leather industry utterly endangers and harms the health of our planet. In fact, data from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition found that cow skin leather is the third most environmentally impactful material to produce, only after silk and alpaca wool. Even conventional PU (polyurethane) synthetic leather, the most common synthetic animal leather alternative, has less than half the negative impact in production.

Further, the myth that leather is a biodegradable material is easily debunked. Skin is organic and biodegradable, but the tanning process which turns skin into leather exists specifically to make an organic material inorganic – otherwise, leather would rot on our feet. 

Conventional leather contains formaldehyde, chromium and other toxic chemicals. If this material is left in the soil to break down, these toxins will likely leech into the soil, negatively affecting it. 

The three most environmentally impactful materials.


Greenhouse gas emissions

Cattle who are farmed and slaughtered for their flesh and skin release enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere through enteric fermentation – essentially, passing gas and burping. In fact, 14.5% of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions (think mining, transport, all of our power) come from farmed animals, with 65% of these emissions being caused by cattle specifically. 

In Australia, when calculated using a 20-year time frame, agricultural industries contribute around 54% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, with 83% of these emissions being related to livestock production.

A graph from the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report.
A drone image of an Australian feedlot for cattle who will be slaughtered for their flesh and skin.
Image: Farm Transparency Project

Water scarcity

Animal skin leather is incredibly water intensive to produce. The vast majority of this water usage is related to cattle on farms, not the water usage of tanneries. 
Cattle drink a lot of water, and they eat a lot of grain. In factory-farms and feedlots, cattle are fed grain that to be produced, requires land to be cleared and water to be used. Shocking to many, but 80% of beef sold in major Australian supermarkets come from cattle who spend part of their lives crammed together in feedlots.

Land clearing

More native land is cleared in Australia for animal grazing than any other industry.

Further, 80% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, one of the worlds largest carbon sinks, is directly linked to cattle ranching for leather and beef. Brazil is the second largest exporter of raw cow hides.

Aerial view of deforested land around Paragominas, northern state of Para, Brazil. Image: AP Photo/Andre Penner
A young boy sorts through chrome tanned animal skins, in front of a heavily polluted body of water.
Image: Daniel Lanteigne

Toxic tanneries

The tanning of leather is considered to be one of the ‘top 10 pollution problems in the world’ by Scientific American.
In one leather tanning country, Bangladesh, every day an estimated 22,000 cubic metres of untreated waste water full of dangerous chemicals flows outside of tanneries, and into the main river communities rely upon.

Human Exploitation

Tanneries, pollution, and the health of workers and their communities

The frighteningly high levels of pollution coming from tanneries is a serious human rights issue. In aforementioned Bangladesh, and in India, local residents and workers suffer and fall sick due to exposure to the harmful tannery chemicals which pollute their natural environment, drinking and bathing water. In the Pulitzer Centre short film, The Toxic Price of Leather, interviews with workers and locals expose health problems including cancers, mental illness, child developmental issues and skin diseases.

Human Rights Watch interviewed children, some as young as 11, who were working in these Bangladeshi tanneries, made to work in hazardous conditions, ‘soaking hides in chemicals, cutting tanned hides with razor blades, and operating dangerous tanning machinery. Women and girls said that they are paid comparatively less than men and that, in addition to their own work, they must also perform tasks normally performed by men.’

In China, the top exporter of tanned leather, ‘cancer villages’ exist due to the excessive heavy metal pollution (arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium included) from surrounding leather tanneries. 

The excessive presence of these metals in drinking water has been known to cause cancer of the skin, bladder, and lungs, and is also toxic to important human organs like the liver and kidneys. People living in these areas have their health severely compromised by the leather and other industries.

The mental health of abattoir workers and farmers

Studies have shown that slaughtering animals for a living  can negatively impact a person’s mental health. PITS, or perpetration-induced traumatic stress, is similar to the more commonly known PTSD, with a major difference; the mental suffering comes from having committed violent acts, not being the victim of them.

Jay Wilde, a farmer who became vegan and transitioned his beef farm into a vegan one, also spoke of the emotional difficulties he suffered with when sending animals to slaughter. Jay felt he had to ‘steel himself’ to send cattle to slaughter, feeling like a ‘criminal playing a dirty horrible trick’ on those animals, subsequently stating ‘it was soul destroying’. You can watch Jay’s story in the award-winning short film, 73 Cows.

The jobs that are delegated out within animal industries are inherently cruel, in both slaughterhouses and on farms; even when following the law, atrocious violence against animals is committed. While we deeply empathize with the animals who are slaughtered for their flesh and skin, we must not demonize those people working in these industries, but remember that they are often working within them with little other choice, and suffering because of their inhumane work. 

Jay Wilde, with one of the 73 cows he surrendered to Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Britain.

Alternatives

It’s wonderful that there are so many materials we can wear instead of animal skins, and they’re all more environmentally friendly!

As well as PU synthetic leather, there are plenty of other kind, innovative materials. Below we’ve shared some of our favourite fairly made, animal-free products from 100% vegan brands using these materials.

Have a search online for other ethical products made from them. Also remember that there are plenty of vegan second-hand goods available, too!

Below, we’ve put together a list of some of our favourite brands using these kind vegan materials. There are lots of colourful and fun options out there to choose from, but we’ve gone with some more ‘essential’ choices for you.

Corkor is an ethically made vegan brand that produces their bags, wallets and belts from Forest Stewardship Council certified cork. 

Farming cork actually sequesters carbon, and cork trees are harvested without destroying them; the bark is peeled off, which actually allows the tree to take in more carbon from the atmosphere as it grows back.

Dauntless is an ethically made brand creating clothes like this gorgeous PU synthetic leather jacket – with half the impact of cow skin! The brand also makes use of some recycled materials.

Gunas is an innovative brand which has pioneered the use of many sustainable materials, including MulbTex. This is a completely plastic free material made from a cotton base, coated with mulberry leaf pulp, which is naturally shiny. It’s light, waterproof, and ages well. 

Ahimsa makes their shoes in their own factory in Brazil, the only completely vegan one in the world. 

These shoes are made from PU synthetic leather, but the brand also uses some organic materials.

Vegan Style in Australia and online stocks these, and many other great brands.

Thamon ethically produces wallets, bags and backpacks which are made of both PU and leaf leather. ‘Leaf leather’ is made from fallen leaves which are then coated in resin. 

This Time IV Change watch has a strap made of Pinatex, a wonderful material made from the leaves of pineapple plants.

Before this material came to be, these leaves were discarded, so it’s production offers pineapple farmers in the Philippines an additional income stream.

The leaf fibre is then coated with a resin made of renewable biomass from crops like sugar cane and sugar beet.

These unisex boots from Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather are made from a special material which is 50% powder made from apple skins, seeds and cores discarded from the apple juice industry! The other 50% is PU vegan leather.

Susi Studio is an ethical brand which makes use of lots of great materials, including completely recycled PU synthetic leather. 

The Ahimsa Collective is an ethically made brand using sustainable materials like pineapple leaf ‘leather’, deadstock materials otherwise destined for landfill, and washable paper.

This bag is made from washable paper, which is durable, and Forest Stewardship Council certified. It’s also lined with a material made from recycled plastic bottles.