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The lowdown on leather (part 2)

Suede shoe close up

Part one of this two part series discussed the environmental concerns around the production of leather. The impact of leather does not end here though: both humans and animals alike suffer as a result of consumer demand for leather goods. Ruth Hatten discusses these impacts and suggests ways we can navigate the issues when next shopping for leather.

Human suffering

Very few leather-finishing facilities exist in Australia due to the competitive pull of overseas markets. This means that the majority of the leather we purchase is often produced in developing countries with poor worker health and safety requirements.

The majority of leather production is a chemical-heavy process that has alarming consequences for unprotected workers.

Exposure to chemicals in leather tanneries can result in a wide array of health concerns, including:

  • Respiratory issues including Asthma-like reactions to the inhalation of metabisulfite, irritation or burning of the respiratory tract and fluid accumulation in the lungs;
  • Skin irritation and other conditions;
  • Potential exposure to carcinogens;
  • Fatalities due to exposure of high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide and ammonia.

The story in Bangladesh

There are around 200 tanneries in Hazaribagh, a district in the old section of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The tanneries employ approximately 25,000 workers on an average pay of $50 a month. Workers are denied basic entitlements including paid sick leave and compensation for injuries. Hours are long and children as young as 11 work to satisfy Western demand for a cheap product.

In addition to chemical exposure, machinery accidents are of concern in Hazaribagh. Reports reveal incidents where limbs are lost or deaths occur due to machine failure, explosion or electrocution.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that 90 per cent of Hazaribagh’s tannery workers will die before they reach 50.

Bangladesh tannery

Animal suffering

It’s believed that globally, more than one billion animals are slaughtered for their skin by the leather industry each year.

Most leather made in Australia and abroad originates from cows. Other Australian species which are used by the leather industry include goats, sheep, kangaroos, emus, ostriches, crocodiles, camels, cane toads, fish and sharks.

Many of these animals will live in the same conditions as animals intensively farmed for their flesh. In the worst of scenarios, these animals may undergo mutilations including tail docking, dehorning, castration, branding and mulesing without pain relief; suffer neglect, have their young taken from them prematurely, be fed an unnatural diet, be transported without sufficient food, water, space and ventilation or be manhandled inhumanely and brutally slaughtered.

For the majority of animals, whether raised for their skin or their flesh, life is unnaturally short; even more so for the newly born who also suffer for the sake of leather. Bobby calves for example, the waste product of the dairy industry, are routinely taken from their mothers and killed within the first five days of birth. Flesh is sold as veal while their skin is processed and sold as leather.

Native animals and leather production

Kangaroos suffer in the wild at the hands of shooters. Traumatised by the stress of being hunted, they can endure a slow death when not killed instantly, and animal rights groups have decried the methods used to kill dependent Joeys still in the pouch. Despite what the kangaroo industry will tell you, it is not a sufficiently monitored trade.

Crocodiles are intensively farmed for their skins throughout Northern Australia, where conditions are said to be dark, cramped and stressful.

Questions also arise over the slaughter methods on crocodile farms. According to Animals Asia, crocodiles held on farms in Australia are commonly slaughtered by clubbing the head or a chisel driven through the upper spine. The relevant code of practice requires humane slaughter via a shot to the brain or with a hammer and chisel but it is believed that these methods are rarely used because of the difficulty involved and the potential damage to the valuable skin of the animal.

Worker in an open-air tannery

How can we make sure our leather is sourced ethically?

Well, it’s not easy. Treated hides, the bulk of exports from places like Hazaribagh, are sent to be manufactured elsewhere with the finished product bearing a label of that country rather than the source of the leather.

Leather that has been tanned using vegetable dyes may avoid or reduce the use of harmful toxins, but animal welfare concerns remain and the finished product is stiffer, with limited applications for retail goods.

Surprisingly, vegetable tanned leather is less biodegradable than that produced by chemical-heavy methods because of the way the tanning agents attach to the skin.

Although solutions to new leather are hard to come by, many small makers use recycled leather for small items like wallets and card holders. You’ll find these at your local craft markets or online craft sellers like Etsy.

Leather alternatives

The environmental, human and animal issues surrounding leather can be quite confronting and certainly provide some cause for thought. If you find yourself inclined to seek alternatives to leather, there are a number of good options available in today’s marketplace.

PVC is a leather alternative with environmental implications of its own, but there are many eco-friendly alternatives, including:

  • cork
  • barkcloth
  • recycled ultrasuede
  • glazed cotton
  • paper
  • rubber
  • recycled PET polyester
  • degradable polyurethane

“High fashion” is also making a play at the non-leather market, with Stella McCartney committed to cruelty-free alternatives.

A good starting point to seek out some of these brands and make a better choice for footwear, bags and wallets are ethical online sellers such as

Photo credits:
Top: Michael Foley cc
Middle: WWarby cc
Bottom: lola Fuentes cc

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