Not in my skin

Center picture: mother and daughter cows, photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals. Right and left pictures: tanneries.

For Natalia Skrypnikova

I was thrilled when a friend of mine suggested I write about vegan apparel. I love fashion and that’s an opportunity to explore one aspect of it, leather, which the fashion industry presents as something glamorous. But what kind of glamour is there in a product that is made from parts of animal bodies like cows or dogs, based on human exploitation, and is one of the worst polluting industries on the planet? I’m glad to report, all that is fast changing and eco-friendly, vegan leather is the new trend!

I confess, before being vegan I purchased items made from leather, wool, down, and silk, not thinking twice about it. Even though I didn’t eat meat for decades I foolishly assumed that leather is no more than a byproduct of the meat industry and that’s why it’s fine to use. I did not think or know much about other animal based materials either. However, once I realized that non-human animals, much like humans, should not be treated as commodities or revenue generators, the light bulb went off – I should not purchase anything that is part of an animal’s body or based on their exploitation. This realization came into sharp focus when I learned how those materials are procured.

There is much to say about obtaining wool, down, silk and fur, from animals, but I’ll focus on leather which is most commonly used, and is an industry worth billions of dollars. Leather, let’s not fool ourselves, is the skin of an animal, who did not want to die to be your gloves, belt, or shoes. And it isn’t exactly a byproduct of the meat industry. It’s part of the global animal agriculture business and generates a significant portion of its profits.

Leather is made primarily from cows, pigs, goats and sheep. Heartbreakingly, the softest and more expensive leather is prepared from the skin of newborn or even unborn baby cows, cut out of their mother’s wombs. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw unborn calf skin items for sale on websites such as Etsy, eBay and chichesterinc.com/CalfSkinsUnborn!

Leather is also made from alligators, crocodiles, snakes and ostriches, who are kept captive under horrific conditions, and killed using brutal methods such as skinning the animals alive. In Australia Kangaroos are slaughtered by the millions every year so their skins can be used for soccer shoes and other sport items.

And let’s not forget the millions of dogs and cats who are slaughtered for their meat and skin in China, the largest exporter of leather products. You may unknowingly wear dog skin gloves that are labeled, for example, as “made in Italy”. Keep in mind, the origin of leather – what animal it’s made from – is not required to be disclosed, and companies have a financial incentive not to make it transparent.

Much of the global leather trade starts in developing countries. The short video Hell for Leather, shows the transport of cows between India and Bangladesh which was described by the Guardian: “…as they are driven along dusty roads for hours and hours, abused and tortured with every mile. Finally the animals are skinned (in front of each other) in the back streets of Dhaka. The skins are processed in makeshift tanneries with workers, including children, knee deep in toxic chemicals.”

The treatment of animals killed for meat and skin in the U.S. and other western countries is appalling as well. Millions of cows and other animals suffer the daily brutality of factory farming: extreme crowding, cruel mistreatment, and castration, branding, tail-docking, and dehorning, all without any anesthetics. Not to mention the ultimate brutality of slaughtering the animals. Some people may buy into the fake notion of eating “humane” meat, but shouldn’t we be as concerned about the mistreatment of animals who are used for leather as we are for the ones used for meat?

You may not be aware that the leather industry is exploiting and killing not only animals but also humans, including children. The cheap labor combined with lax child labor and workplace safety and environmental laws and regulations and/or enforcement, make poor nations in Asia the center of leather production for the West. In India, toxic chemicals used in tanneries are poisoning their workers. The same is happening in Bangladesh where thousands work in the tanneries, including children who are responsible for dangerous tasks like dipping hides in acid. Work is done without protective gear or even shoes. According to the World Health Organization’s report about half a million residents of Dhaka, are at risk of serious illness due to chemical pollution from tanneries near their homes. 90% of the workers at the tanneries die before the age of 50, and about a quarter of the workers are children under the age of 11 years old.

To understand the issue I highly recommend watching this PBS video about the exposure of workers, many of them are children, to the toxic chemicals of tanneries in Bangladesh. Not only the workers are harmed but residential areas around tanneries are polluted. Tens of thousands of people, including children, come into contact with the chemicals in tannery wastewater that is released untreated into neighborhoods.

The leather manufacturing is considered one of the most polluting industries on the planet. In addition to polluting the environment by raising animals, the production itself requires the use of a variety of hazardous chemicals that are harmful to humans and the environment. Those include: chromium, mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based. Most leather is chrome-tanned. All wastes containing chromium are considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Chromium can make its way into air, water, soil and, food. Indeed, the leather industry is killing people and their environment.

The good news is that there are many leather substitutes made without harming human and non-human animals; much of it is indistinguishable from real leather and also cheaper. Artificial leather is made from various eco-friendly materials such as apple peels, pineapple, mushrooms, wood pulp, cork, recycled tires, and also from plastics. According to Forbes, vegan leather will be a major trend for 2018!

As reported by Drive, the car industry is making progress as well. Companies such as Tesla offer leather free options for consumers upset by the fact it can take anywhere from five to 15 cows to create a leather interior.

Vegan leather shoes made from apple skin (Photo: VEERAH)

As for fashion, here are a few designers and retailers that offer sustainable, vegan leather goods such as shoes and accessories: Beyond Skin, Bourgeois Boheme, Matt and Nat, MooShoes, Veerah (sells shoes that are made from sustainable materials such as apple peel and cork) and Brave GentleMan.

Stella McCartney is an upscale fashion brand. As reported by the Guardian, “anyone who has ever held a Stella McCartney bag and had a good look at one can testify that they’re every bit as alluring in weight and softness as a top-grade leather; that they do appear to be as good as the real thing – better, if you factor in the environmental damage and loss of life they’ve displaced.”

Other designers, Vika Gazinskaya, Felder Felder and Ann-Sofie, to name a few, also have only animal free leather in their collections.

There are many fabulous and stylish brands of vegan leather goods; check out some in the following links for bags, jackets, shoes and everything.

If you shop online on sites such as Zappos or Amazon, simply type the word vegan and the product you are looking for, into the search bar, such as “vegan shoes”. You’ll be surprised how many products are made from cruelty free leather. Some retail companies’ websites have specific pages dedicated to vegan goods such as Free People and Lulu’s. And you can step into stores like TJ Maxx, H&M, Nordstrom Rack and Payless and find beautiful (and reasonably priced) faux leather merchandise.

By purchasing cruelty free vegan, leather instead of animal skin, you’ll not only prevent the needless killing and suffering of animals, but you will also stop supporting the exploitation and poisoning of humans who work in the tanneries, and the pollution of our planet.

Next time you make a purchase, please think about who and what it’s made from. If it was made from a sentient creature, consider its entire horrific and brutal manufacturing process, and choose kindness. Go vegan!

I wish all of you a happy, compassionate and stylish new year!

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15 Responses

  1. Ronna Kaplan says:

    Dear Zahava, I will be much more aware now, after reading your article, about Vegan leather. I never knew that there was such a thing.
    Thank you!
    Happy healthy New Year!

  2. Deb says:

    Yay for vegan leather! And don’t let anyone tell you that you need fur or leather or wool to keep warm.

  3. Mari says:

    This should be required reading for everyone., because it is so important on so many levels. I was always shocked when vegetarian friends wore leather, and frankly, it grossed me out. I’ve always dressed vegan by default because I am allergic to wool, and I have birds, so no down, and I never cared for silk or leather. It’s always been an easy decision for me, and one I’m comfortable with. I am happy that upscale designers are giving us cruelty free fashion. Thanks for posting this. I always buy cruelty free makeup too.

    • Many thanks Mari. I appreciate your compassion. If only everyone could connect the dots, as you do, with the treatment of your companion birds and other birds, such as geese. That requires awareness and empathy, thank you for that!

  4. Alma E. Perlish says:

    Dear Zahava, this was a great article. I guess I’ve been a vegan dresser for years. I do have a down jacket; however. the fibers are synthetic. When I knit I only use nylon thread. Keep up the good work of making people aware. You should send your articles to the Board of Education Home Economics classes so it is required reading material for students..

  5. Tamar Uziel says:

    Thank you for your post. Very eye-opening. I will certainly change my shopping habits.

  6. Bev Pines says:

    Great article, Z! While it’s wonderful that there are more companies offering vegan alternatives, and will hopefully catch on via millennials on a much greater scale, I have to say I am so disillusioned by the unwillingness of people to link, learn about, and/or change their meat-eating habits. Eating meat is so ingrained in our society, indeed all over the world, and there is so much big money behind it, that I can only hope that people will gradually come to realize the cruelty of both the meat, dairy and fashion industry. I see this kind of like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, or anything so entrenched in our customs, that it may take a century or more for a paradigm shift.

  7. Rita Anderson says:

    Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue, Zahava. I have no problem finding vegan shoes, purses and all kinds of clothing. It gives one a sense of peace to wear only products that embody peace and harmony rather than cruelty. The mere thought of putting someone else’s skin on my body is disgusting. With your help, Zahava, more people will learn about this horrific issue! Thank you once again , my wise friend!

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