LAST UPDATED: 27 October 2020
What is leather?
While most people associate leather with cows, the reality is that many different animals are killed to make leather. Once an animal's skin is removed, it is preserved through a process called 'tanning' which uses strong chemicals to prevent the skin from decomposing.
Animals pay the ultimate price for leather — but the tanning process can be toxic to both the environment and people, too.
The animal victims
A wide variety of animal species are used to make leather — most notably cattle, but also pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, sting rays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats and dogs. Even baby animals don't escape the leather industry — with the skins of calves, kids and lambs considered particularly valuable because of their softness.
Hundreds of thousands of days-old 'bobby' calves born into the dairy industry are slaughtered every year in Australia, with their skins then used to make boots, bags and other products for the fashion industry. Even unborn calves (called 'slinks'), whose pregnant mothers are killed in slaughterhouses, may be skinned. The skin from these premature animals is particularly sought-after for its delicateness.
Just a 'by-product'?
It's a common misconception that leather is simply a 'by-product' of meat production. Whilst it's true that usually an animals' meat can also sold (such as in the case of cattle and sheep), their skin can still represent a significant portion of the income made on the sale of their body parts, contributing to the overall commercial viability of the enterprise. So, sadly, leather is rather a 'co-product' of the meat industry, and may contribute to driving demand for more animals to be raised and killed.
Animals raised and killed in Australia
For animals like cattle and sheep who are killed for their meat and leather in Australia, life isn't easy. Caught up in profit-driven industries, they have been denied the same legal protection given to most other animals. As a result, these sensitive animals are routinely subjected to painful procedures like castration, de-horning, branding and mulesing — often without any pain relief. These animals are also raised on such large and remote stations that monitoring and care for them is infrequent — and injured and sick animals may be forced to suffer for long periods in pain, untreated and unnoticed.
And ultimately, all animals used for their leather must face the stresses of slaughter.
Even one of Australia's most iconic animals — the kangaroo — is shot by the millions every year, with their skins used to make sporting shoes, gloves, accessories and souvenirs. Tragically, in addition to the commercial killing of adult kangaroos, thousands of dependent joeys become 'collateral damage' of this brutal slaughter, and are either clubbed to death, or left to starve when their mothers are killed for their meat and skin.
Imported leather — a grim fate for animals
Australia also imports leather and leather products from a wide variety of countries — including some with no animal welfare laws, and appalling track records of animal cruelty. India's leather trade is one of the biggest in the world, and cows who are marched to their slaughter suffer horrific abuse and death. Because many provinces forbid the slaughter of 'sacred' cows, these animals are forced to walk long distances across borders to be brutally killed in neighbouring provinces and countries. The gruelling journey will be the death of many of these gentle animals. Exhausted animals can be beaten and tortured with chilli and tobacco rubbed into their eyes to make them keep walking.
China — the world's largest exporter of leather — kills millions of cats and dogs for their meat and skin every year. Because there is no requirement to label leather products, it can be extremely difficult and often impossible for a consumer to ascertain which species of animal it has come from, and which country he/she was raised and killed in.
The wider cost of leather production
While leather is often promoted as being a 'natural' fibre, the tanning process can involve an array of toxic chemicals which permanently alter the protein structure of the skin.
Workers in some international tanneries have been documented to suffer from skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals. These chemicals can also cause extreme pollution to air, soil and water, resulting in devastating effects to local human and animal populations.
As more people become aware of the big cost of leather to animals, people and the environment, demand is growing for kinder alternatives. Many retailers now offer a range of leather-free bags, shoes, belts and other products that are not only fashionable, but also cruelty-free, with many utilising new technology and eco-friendly, plant-based materials. In fact, even some products that look like leather are actually synthetic, so it's always a good idea to check the label!
You can make a difference
Tread softly for animals and the planet by choosing cruelty-free alternatives to leather. You don't even need to step out your front door — there are some great online stores that specialise in cruelty-free shoes, handbags, and other leather-free apparel:
- Ethical Gallery (Brisbane)
- Vegan Style (Melbourne)
- Moo Shoes (US-based)
- Vegetarian Shoe Company (UK-based)
- Vegan Wares (Melbourne)
- Humankind (Australia)
- Discover 18 more cruelty-free shoe stores online here.