The Skin Trade: Inside the Fur and Leather Industries

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For ethical and moral reasons, many people refuse to wear fur. But if you looked at those same people’s feet, you’re likely to still see leather shoes. They probably carry their cash in leather wallets, or store those wallets in leather purses. Most people probably have a leather jacket in their closet (or at least one trimmed in leather), as well as leather gloves, leather iPod cases, and perhaps leather-bound books.


It’s common for people to think about leather and fur in very different terms: they consider fur a cruel luxury and leather a commonplace necessity. Although the moral outrage over fur doesn’t usually carry over to the wearing and use of leather, the truth is that the leather industry is just as cruel to animals as the fur industry is, and it wreaks far more environmental devastation.


Another Part of Big Beef


Most leather is a by-product of the commercial beef industry; about 66 percent of all leather comes from the one billion cows slaughtered in the world each year (the rest comes from animals like pigs, goats, sheep, and horses). Most of these are cows raised for dairy and beef, and after the animals have been slaughtered for their primary purpose, their hides are harvested and sold to tanneries to make leather. Commercial beef farming is a resource-consuming, dirty, and environmentally unfriendly practice; it generates millions of tons of waste runoff that contaminates soil and groundwater, releases millions of tons of methane into the atmosphere, consumes a disproportionate share of the world’s grain and water resources, and requires the use of fossil fuels for fertilizer and transportation. The abuses of animals in the commercial beef and dairy industries have been well documented.


Once the hides are collected, they must undergo the tanning process—and being a tanner is of the dirtiest jobs in the history of humankind. Until modern times, tanneries used animal brains and feces in the tanning process, and tanners were considered so filthy and so foul that they were relegated to the outskirts of cities and towns; those who worked as tanners were even considered “unclean” by some societies. Modern tanning uses copious amounts of noxious chemicals, which are ultimately released into the air and into water as waste.


Although leather produced in the United States and Europe is subject to more stringent environmental- and animal-protection standards, much of the world’s leather comes from China, India, and other third-world countries, areas where such laws either don’t exist or are rarely enforced. In addition to cattle, these areas are also known for poaching wild animals for their skins, including alligators, zebras, big cats, kangaroos, elephants, eels, turtles, and ostriches. These countries are also known for using the most environmentally unsound slaughter and tanning methods in order to make the cheapest leathers, which are used in trimmings, shoes, and other inexpensive goods.


Farming for Fur


The fur trade doesn’t have the same environmental implications as the commercial beef industry because the animals raised for fur tend to be smaller mammals that require fewer resources and less energy to raise and transport. Most of the world’s fur is raised on farms in Europe, although many nations have outlawed fur farming in recent years, or made regulations so strict that the farms have closed on their own. Fur farms do not produce quite the same gargantuan amounts of waste or emissions, but they do produce runoff that pollutes the nearby environment.


Furriers are also heavily criticized for the methods they use to raise and kill the animals, methods that reliably focus on maintaining profits and not on the animals’ welfare. Many caged animals in fur farms die of respiratory infections because of overcrowding before furriers can harvest their pelts. Being confined in cages is unnatural for minks, foxes, and rabbits (the most common fur animals), since they have not been domesticated by humans. According to PETA, the crowding and confinement leads many animals to pick at their skin and fur, pace and circle in their small cages, and sometimes even cannibalize their cage mates. In order to avoid disturbing the pelt, furriers often slaughter the animals by electrocuting them through the anus or exposing them to poisoned gas. Fur farmers usually claim that the leftover, skinned corpses are turned into feed for other animals, but in many instances, dead animals simply end up in landfills as trash.


As with facilities used in the production of leather, fur farms in the United States and Europe are subject to strict regulations; but farms in China or India, both fast-growing markets, are not. China is also notorious for farming and collecting fur from cats and dogs, even though it’s illegal to import them into many Western countries, then mislabeling the pelts as those of other animals or even as faux fur,


The choice of whether or not to wear fur and leather is a personal one. It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves, but the truth is that both fur and leather represent equally abhorrent practices. Both industries are the subject of rightly deserved criticism; even if the majority of producers act responsibly and ethically, there’s no official “humane” or “organic” designation for fur or leather products that alerts consumers to an item’s provenance. Reasonable fur and leather alternatives exist. Although nobody can deny the beauty of a supple calfskin glove or a luscious mink stole, the only way to be truly responsible to the environment and to the animals is to simply go with faux. 

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