How Leather Is Destroying the Planet
Leather production is burning and poisoning our planet, catapulting it towards the worst effects of the climate catastrophe. Turning cows’ skin into clothing and accessories produces massive amounts of manure and slaughterhouse waste, requires intensive water use, and pollutes the water, air, and land. The leather industry kills more than 1 billion animals every single year and shares responsibility for the same environmental hazards as the meat industry. If you’re making compassionate decisions in your life to help combat climate change, not wearing leather should be one of them.
The greatest environmental destruction occurs before the animal skins even arrive at the tanneries, which means that greenwashing marketing schemes touting “vegetable-tanned” or “chrome-free” leather don’t address the process that causes the most damage: farming.
Animal agriculture, which includes the leather industry, is a leading contributor to climate change, causing almost one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to luxury fashion conglomerate Kering’s 2016 “Environmental Profit and Loss” report, more than 93% of leather’s environmental impact is caused by land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming.
Land Use and Deforestation
Raising animals on factory farms for food and leather requires vast quantities of water and thousands of acres of pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. Around 80% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures or to grow animal-feed crops. Deforestation causes habitat loss for millions of species, eliminates the Earth’s tree canopy, and drives climate change.
Manure, Waste, and Water Pollution
Animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population – and mostly without the benefit of waste treatment plants.
Factory farms are the main cause of water pollution and ammonia emissions in the UK, harming ecosystems and turning rivers into “pea soup”. Between 2021 and 2022, farms set a new record for water pollution violations, as 391 breaches of the farming rules for water were documented.
Chemicals and Tannery Toxins
Leather is the skin of a dead animal, which means it needs to be treated with a range of chemicals to keep it from naturally decomposing in the buyer’s wardrobe.
Mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based dyes, and other dangerous substances are routinely used during the tanning process. Over 90% of the world’s leather is chrome-tanned, and all waste containing chromium is hazardous. Wastewater containing these dangerous chemicals is often dumped into rivers or onto riverbanks and nearby fields. Pure Earth, a not-for-profit group that works to reduce pollution in developing nations, included tanneries on its 2012 list of the world’s top 10 toxic industries.
Tannery workers and nearby residents are often plagued by higher rates of cancer as well as skin and respiratory diseases. Leather production is so unsafe that the process is being abandoned in the UK, most European countries, and in the US. Operations are moving overseas and jeopardising the health of people in other parts of the world so that people in the West can continue wearing leather gloves and shoes.
PETA Germany investigated the growing leather trade in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The group visited the poor residential district of Hazaribagh where 15,000 labourers – some as young as 10 – toil in more than 200 tanneries. Workers stand barefoot in toxic chromium effluent and handle acids and bleaches. Even if workers are given cheap rubber boots to wear, they often are not equipped with face masks or safety goggles to protect them against fumes that cause severe respiratory problems. Some workers lose fingers to the conveyor belts. At this factory, a shocking 90% of tannery workers die before the age of 50.
Leather leaves a path of destruction in its wake on the way to shop shelves and will continue to destroy the planet long after the items are tossed aside. Chrome gets inside the animal skin, making leather practically non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. The tanning industry itself has conducted independent studies and found that leather – regardless of the tanning process – does not effectively biodegrade.
Killing the Planet and Animals
Because cows’ skin is the most economically important co-product of the meat industry, buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs – and all the cruelty they involve. Animals raised on filthy, crowded farms are often caged and deprived of all that is natural and important to them, such as foraging for food and raising their young. Many are subjected to horrific mutilations – their teeth, tails, and testicles may be cut off without any painkillers. Female cows are repeatedly impregnated by artificial insemination, and their terrified babies are torn away from them shortly after birth. At the abattoir, many cows are still conscious and able to feel pain when their throats are cut. Luxury brands often sell “calf leather” or “calfskin”, which means the terrified babies being torn away from their mothers may be killed in this way, too.
And it isn’t just cows who suffer – during a PETA Asia investigation, a slaughterhouse worker confirmed that the facility in question killed up to 200 dogs every single day. When the investigation footage was filmed, there were about 300 dogs in the compound slated for slaughter. PETA Asia’s investigator documented that dog skin was turned into dress gloves, work gloves, shoes, belts, jacket collar trim, and other products that are exported all around the world. No company is going to advertise that its gloves or belts are made of dog skin. An owner of one processing plant told PETA Asia’s investigator that the facility markets its products as lambskin. If you buy leather, there’s no easy way to tell what – or rather whom – you are wearing.
You Can Help Reduce Leather’s Disastrous Impact
How can you help reduce the disastrous impact leather has on the environment, human health, and animals? The answer is simple: never buy or wear animal-derived leather. Vegan leather is widely available, and when you make this compassionate choice, you show major retailers that cruelty isn’t in fashion.