The Green Issue of Vanity Fair, currently on shelves, correctly notes in discussing the impact of our purchasing decisions that "fur and leather...mean slaughtering animals," but in an issue packed with otherwise thoughtful analysis, they missed the fact that in addition to the sad fact that wearing fur or leather means, literally, wearing a part of an animal's corpse (or many of them, if you're wearing a full length fur), both products have adverse environmental impacts that far outpace their faux fur and pleather (i.e., faux leather) counterparts.
It's an odd irony, isn't it? You think of leather or fur and you think "natural product." You think of faux fur or faux leather and you think "unnatural," or even "petrochemical." But once you investigate what goes into creating this "natural" (dead) product, whether you're talking about fur or leather, you're talking environmental nightmare that far outpaces the synthetic alternatives.
I'll go on the assumption that most HuffPo readers are already anti-fur and know all about the horrible realities of the fur trade (but if you don't, please watch this video, narrated by former fur-wearer Martha Stewart), but if Katrina vanden Heuvel's jacket on Colbert a few weeks back is any indications, progressives have a ways to go regarding our awareness of leather.
Leather? What could possibly be wrong with this ubiquitous shoe, jacket, and everything else product? Sadly, quite a lot. It's worth noting that more than half of leather comes from China or India, where animal welfare and environmental regulations either don't exist or are not enforced.
Everyone knows how bad things are for child and prison laborers in China; if they treat humans that way, imagine how they treat animals. Sadly, you don't have to imagine; PETA has a fair bit of undercover footage of dogs and cats raised for fur, leather, and meat in China (warning: some of the images will be burned into your brain).
Yes, dogs and cats are turned into fur, leather, and meat in China. And it's worth recalling that even if it says "Made in Italy" (or wherever), the materials are very likely sourced from the cheapest possible country (for leather, that's China and India).
But India, surely animals are treated well in India, especially the cows, right? Sadly, some of the most shocking video we have ever taken (scroll down to "Skins Trade") is of the Indian leather trade. Spent dairy cattle are shipped from the North of India thousands of miles to the two states in India that still allow cattle slaughter, Kerala and West Bengal, or even all the way to Bangladesh. Animals who are too sick or injured to walk are dragged and beaten; chili peppers are rubbed into their eyes and their tails are broken. At the slaughterhouse, cows are bound by all four feet and tossed on their sides onto the filthy, blood-covered floor. Their throats are cut with dull knives, and other cows look helplessly on as their companions slowly bleed to death.
I've seen many shocking things in my ten years at PETA, but little has been as shocking to me as the train station in Calcutta, where there were thousands of emaciated former dairy cattle, not good for meat, all being used for leather exclusively. Many had collapsed from the heat, some mothers had given birth there in the barren lot, one newly born baby looked at me, pleading for help, as a vulture pecked out his eye. Our PETA India Director and I watched helplessly as a small truck was packed so tightly with cattle that some of their necks were sure to break in route to their final destination, hundreds of miles away in Bangladesh. All of these animals were being used exclusively for leather.
Things are also horrible for the human workers and anyone unfortunate enough to live near a leather tannery (all poor people, you can rest assured). An animal's skin will decompose if it's not treated with a nasty stew of toxic chemicals. An animal's skin is natural, sure, but once it's turned into something that won't decompose, it's an eco-disaster many times greater than creating a synthetic leather. Turning an animal's skin into leather requires massive amounts of energy and toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based. And most leather is chrome-tanned. Tannery effluent also contains large amounts of pollutants, such as salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids.
Of course, the process of tanning stabilizes the collagen or protein fibers in skins so that they actually stop biodegrading -- otherwise, your leather shoes would rot right off your feet.
Like every other industry, tanneries have shifted their operations from developed to undeveloped nations, where labor is cheap and environmental regulations are lax. PETA's investigation into India's tanneries found workers in just hideous conditions, forced to breath and touch the entire gamut of toxins, all of which were then dumped into rivers for nearby villagers to drink. You can watch a video that Pamela Anderson narrated for us here; the tanneries are about two thirds into the video.
In New Scientist magazine, a lawyer for China's Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims describes conditions on one river poisoned by waste from a nearby tannery: "A few years ago, villagers could swim in the river. Now they get blisters on their hands and feet from touching the water. ... When you stand close to the river you can smell rotting flesh because the leather factory dumps its sewage, made up of animal skin and meat, untreated into the river."
Although only a tiny fraction of leather comes from the U.S., it is worth noting that cows killed in this country suffer as well. After being transported hundreds of miles in all weather extremes to the slaughterhouse, they are shot in the head with a bolt gun, hung up by their legs, and taken onto the killing floor, where their throats are cut and they are skinned. Some cows remain fully conscious throughout the entire process.
The good news is that we have a choice. Car shoppers can opt for fabric seats. Fashionistas can support trendsetting designers like Stella McCartney and Marc Bouwer, who don't use a stitch of fur or leather in their designs. (Budget-conscious consumers will find leather-free fashions, including shoes, belts, bags, and more, at strip-mall staples such as Target and Kohl's.) Athletes should check out products like Nike's "Durabuck" shoes, made from the synthetic material chlorenol, which stretches around the foot with the same "give" as leather, offers good support, is machine-washable--and doesn't have that dead-animal smell.
This is truly one of those cases where we can help stop suffering and protect the planet simply by being informed consumers and making smart choices about what we buy and wear. I urge readers to take a look at PETA's Web site for more information: I bet you'll be surprised by what you learn about leather--and how easy it is to go leather-free.
Follow Bruce Friedrich on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brucegfriedrich