The Truth About Leather in the Fashion Industry

When scrolling through Instagram, you can probably see all your favorite YouTubers, influencers and celebrities, wearing that popular GG buckle Gucci belt. Or carrying that classic quilted Chanel handbag. Or wearing those “red bottom” Louboutin pumps.

In today’s day and age, owning designer items is a luxury. Almost every fashion blogger or celebrity on social media can be seen wearing designer garments or clothing. But this is not limited to just influencers. Countless people all over the world splurge on these luxury pieces. What they fail to realize, however, is where those pieces came from.

In the fashion industry, there are quite a lot of different types of animal derived fabrics that are used: fur, leather, silk, cashmere, wool, shearling, angora, the list goes on and on. Fur is one of these controversial fabrics that is quite often talked about in the industry. Countless fashion houses, such as Burberry, Versace, Michael Kors and Gucci have gone fur-free. 

However, even though fur has been recognized as unethical and inhumane, the fashion industry does not recognize that the same can be said about other kinds of animal derived fabrics. 

Fashion designers are constantly talking about the fur debate. But no one is talking about the use of leather in the industry. 

Fur is considered unethical and inhumane by most people. But the same people often forget that, just like fur, leather also comes from the skin of animals. 

Most people have misconceptions about the leather industry and what goes on behind the scenes. One of the biggest reasons people support buying leather goods is because of the mentality that “the animal is going to be killed for meat anyway, so why waste its hide?”   

This claim is far from the truth. 

The reality is this: leather is not simply a “byproduct” of the meat industry. In recent years, the demand for leather has been increasing, which means that in a lot of countries, like Brazil, China and India, cows are killed only for their leather. According to PETA, more than one billion cows are killed for their meat every year. And the sale of their skin provides about 20% of the total revenues from each animal. And the things the cows have to go through during that process are outrageously cruel and disgusting. 

In developing countries, like India and China, animal welfare laws are not enforced. A PETA investigation discovered that in India, workers break the cows’ tails and even rub chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes to force them to walk to the slaughterhouse when they are collapsing out of exhaustion. Even in a developed country like the US, millions of cows and other animals are forced to endure “extreme crowding and deprivation as well as castration, branding, tail-docking and dehorning – all without any painkillers” (PETA). They are then brutally killed in the slaughterhouses.

Lucy Adam, a professor at RMIT's School of Fashion and Textiles, said in an interview for i-D magazine that “most leather comes from India or China, whether it's fashioned in Italy or wherever, the animals have suffered horribly. And more often than not, they're not killed as a byproduct of the meat industry. They're killed for their skin." Some people might gravitate towards leather goods with those “Italian leather” stamps on them because that may guarantee that the leather was produced under better conditions than in China. But the “Italian leather” stamps only mean that the leather was finished in Italy. It doesn’t tell us where or what animal the actual hide originates from or what kind of horrible conditions the animals were kept in. It doesn’t tell us if the leather came from cows, or even dogs, cats, cows, pigs and goats. Yes, I said dogs and cats. In China, around 2 million dogs and cats are killed for their meat and skin.   

As for the claim that the cows are going to be killed for meat anyway, how does that explain leather derived from crocodile skin? Or leather that comes from kangaroos, elephants, alligators, ostriches and snakes? They’re not exactly in high demand for their meat. In these cases, these exotic animals are killed for the sole purpose of turning their hides into leather.

Another misconception some people might have is that using animal skin for garments, handbags and shoes is actually sustainable for our environment.

The reality is the exact opposite. Leather is harmful to the environment and for humans, too. The tanning process involves a hazardous mixture of chemicals including mineral salts, formaldehyde and coal-tar. Chrome tanning results in the carcinogen chromium (VI) finding its way into water supplies. A study in Pakistan revealed that out of the 200 tanneries in the Korangi Industrial Area in Karachi, only about a 100 were discharging the chemical wastes from the tanning process. The poisonous chemical, arsenic, has been found near tanneries and is linked to lung cancer. In studies of tannery workers in Italy and Sweden, PETA uncovered that cancer risks were 50% and 20% above the normal level. 

We are living in a world where purposely aborting an unborn calf for its skin is turned into what we consider a “luxury” item. Where animals like ostriches, kangaroos and elephants are killed to become shoes and bags. Where tannery workers are left with skin diseases and cancers because of the harmful chemicals involved in the process. I don’t know about you, but I believe that this needs to change. 

As a fashion student, this issue is something I am very passionate about, and I want to be able to raise awareness about it because it is a topic that is often ignored and turned a blind eye to. I hope that, through this article, you were able to gain a new perspective on the leather industry. 

If you are interested in reading more about the leather industry, you should go check out these links: