Environmental Hazards of Leather
Raising animals for food and leather requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water, and fossil fuels. Animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even acknowledged that livestock pollution is the greatest threat to our waterways.
Although some leathermakers deceptively tout their products as “eco-friendly,” turning skin into leather also requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based. Most leather produced in the U.S. is chrome-tanned; all wastes containing chromium are considered hazardous by the EPA.
Tannery effluent contains large amounts of pollutants, such as salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids. The process of tanning stabilizes the collagen or protein fibers in skins so that they actually stop biodegrading—otherwise the leather would rot right off your feet.
People who work in and live near tanneries suffer too. Many die from cancer possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals used to process and dye the leather. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area near one tannery in Kentucky was five times the U.S. average.
Arsenic, a common tannery chemical, has long been associated with lung cancer in workers who are exposed to it on a regular basis. Studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”
Additionally, raising the animals whose skin eventually becomes leather requires vast quantities of water and wide tracts of pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. Runoff from feedlots and dairy farms also creates a major source of water pollution. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are consumed in livestock production as well; by contrast, plastic wearables account for only a fraction of the petroleum used in the U.S.
The production of leather hurts animals, the environment, and the workers who manufacture it. The only ones who benefit are people who profit from the misery and suffering of others.