Leather is made by tanning animal hides and skins, usually those of cows. Many people assume that leather is a byproduct of the beef industry, however, many cows are raised specifically for their leather, and buying leather helps make the raising and slaughter of animals a profitable business.
Cows are highly intelligent, social animals who are known to be affectionate and playful. Recent studies have demonstrated that cows have complex emotional lives, and respond to separation from their family and companions with pessimism and something akin to a depressive state. Cows are famously devoted mothers, with some individuals going through extraordinary lengths to hide their calves from farmers or to be reunited with them. They clearly form intense and important social bonds, and some mothers have been reported to pine for their lost calves for days and clearly display anxiety and sadness. These are individuals with their own clearly communicated needs and preferences, however, when an animal is being treated as a commodity, these needs are ignored in favour of profit.
Cows, when properly cared for can, live more than fifteen years. However, most cows are usually slaughtered before they are two years old, and the softest, most luxurious leather comes from the skin of newborn or even unborn calves, cut prematurely out of their mother’s wombs. Estimates vary, but it is believed that at least 22.1% of female cows sent to slaughter are pregnant, with around 64% of those being in the second or third trimester. Slaughter methods vary, but a captive bolt pistol shot to the head followed by having their throats slit, while still alive, is standard industry practice. This represents the “best” a slaughtered cow can hope for, but many reports and videos exist which suggest that cows still being alive and conscious while being skinned or dismembered on the production line is not uncommon, some of these reports come from slaughterhouse workers themselves.
Besides the significant cruelty which leather requires, it also has a measurable and profound environmental impact. Conventional leather production also involves the use of acids, salts, fungicides and bactericides – as well as chromium, sulphides and sulphates. This effects workers as well as the environment; illness and death linked of workers linked to toxic tanning chemicals being extremely common. Most leather production has been outsourced to developing nations, where it is extremely difficult to monitor standards. All of this comes at an extremely high water cost, with 90% of water used in tanning being discharged as poisonous effluent. These concerns, combined with the obvious harm caused to animals, make leather extremely difficult to defend on moral grounds, especially considering the fact that for most people, leather is an unnecessary luxury item. With a wide array of sustainable, ethical alternatives cheaply and widely available, there is no good reason to support this cruel and exploitative industry.