Shah: Skins on Skins

Leather does not belong in the 21st century.

by Rachna Shah | 2/1/18 1:00am

In the 21st century, authenticity has become a brand value. We seek products and personas that are real, whether it be in global cuisine or live singing. Yet the search for the real can blind us to the benefits of the synthetic. Making real leather harms animals, leather-tannery workers and nearby communities, while synthetic leather has no victims. While fur-free movements have made an impact over the past few decades, leather has often slipped under the radar. However, leather production is equally harmful to human health, animal rights and the environment.

From the neolithic period to today, humans have worn animals’ hides. Leather is in people’s cars, on their couches and on their clothes. Leather isn’t a meat byproduct, but just like fur, it is cruel to animals because it is the skins of cats, cows, deer, dogs, elephants, goats, kangaroos and sheep. To create leather, skins are also soaked in solutions of urine and animal brains in a tanning process that is extremely foul smelling. Studies have shown that all stages of leather processing negatively impact the environment.

Kanpur, India is a village that used to house almost 10,000 leather tanneries. The industry releases toxic chemicals that have contaminated the Ganges River and polluted the soil. It has devastated crops and vegetables. This has led to health hazards, including blue baby syndrome, respiratory disease and renal failure. Cleaning up its act, Kanpur closed 67 of the highest-polluting tanneries. Still, the $77 billion leather industry remains a human rights issue. Its main consumers are first world countries, and its main victims are developing nations, especially those in which workers are employed in tanneries paying low wages.

While U.S.-based tanneries like Hermann Oak Leather may describe themselves as “sustainable” and “environmentally responsible,” they still generate pollutants and waste. Polluted runoff is often consumed by animals, such as chicken, which are then consumed by humans. In every 200 kilograms of final leather product, 250 kilograms of non-tanned solid waste, 200 kilograms of tanned waste and 50,000 kilograms of waste water are generated. Eighty percent of the original raw material is wasted. Until the demand for cheap leather produced under these conditions is reduced, the waste and damage will continue.

Animals in the leather industry do not have the same legal protection that other animals do. They can be routinely castrated, de-horned and branded; injured animals go unnoticed. When Nike used kangaroo leather in some of its shoes in 2014, it led to a petition with over 300,000 signatures asking Nike to stop using kangaroo leather in favor of synthetic materials such as Kanga-Lite.

Today, half of all leather is used for shoes, and 25 percent is used for clothing. People tend to think of leather alternatives as plastic shoes that aren’t breathable. That’s not the case anymore. When vegetable tanning was in short supply during both World Wars, synthetic leather was invented. It can be made from cork oak trees, kelp and pineapple leaves when a coating is bonded to a fabric backing. PVC and PU leather, two types of synthetic leather, are still environmentally damaging, but they are much less used today and there are many alternatives. For instance, Piñatex is leather produced from waste pineapple leaves, requiring no additional land or water and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals that animal leather production involves. Synthetic leather has greater UV resistance and lower prices. By 2025, the synthetic leather market is expected to grow to $85 billion. Materials such as cork, recycled rubber, waxed cotton and mushrooms are biodegradable. The chemicals utilized in tanneries cause the end byproduct produced to be non-biodegradable.

While synthetic leather is more humane, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than genuine leather, it is often considered inconvenient. Leather is popular because it is ingrained in cultural norms and fashion trends. As we learn more about the cruelties of the leather industry and the cruelty-free alternatives that exist, we can begin to make more educated choices and decisions. If you care about you wear, you should care about how the garments you’re wearing were made.

Animal byproducts allow for the meat industry to make economic returns and compete with industries that sell vegetable protein sources. Agribusiness spends millions of dollars lobbying on bills that help their business. Animals don’t have a voice, but people can be their voice. Through education and advocating for or spending on ethical products, each individual can make a difference. Avoid leather, suede and skins in favor of synthetic materials such as cork and microfibers when buying clothes or shoes. Top brands such as Beyond Skin, Free People, H&M and Stella McCartney sell vegan apparel as do online retailers such as MooShoes and Vegan Chic.

Leather is harmful — to animals, to the environment, to humans. When wearing clothes requires rubbing chili peppers in animals’ eyes, breaking tails and increasing risks of cancer in animals and tannery workers, such a custom is not natural. It is monstrous. It is critical for each person to consider what wearing leather actually means — and consider the benefits of the synthetic choice.

Shah is the president of the Dartmouth Animal Rights Troupe.