Humane America

Animal Studies

A Star is Cloned

Blood Flows

Caught Between

Democracy for Sale

HPV Concession

Skin off their Backs

Life without the Knife

Fetal Lamb

High-Production Horror

The Skin Off Their Backs
By: Elliot L. Gang

Oct. 31, 1999

The use of animal skins as clothing dates back to our cave-dwelling ancestors, and while the business of producing leather has evolved since then, the ethics behind the practice haven't. Last year more than 37 million beef and dairy cattle were slaughtered primarily for meat, not hides. But the pervasive use of leather increases the number of cattle killed, and tanning is destructive to the environment.

Much of the value of cattle comes from offal or byproducts, including hide, tallow, and bone. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) claims that "[u]se of by-products keeps beef prices to consumers lower than they otherwise would be. Hides are the single most valuable by-product." Although cattle hide is used to make glue, gelatin, and "pet" treats, almost all the economic value of hide comes from its use in leather production. Government and industry figures put the worth of the hide at about 6-7 percent of the value of the live animal, or just over $2 billion a year in the United States . To put these figures in perspective, in the article, "Winning the War for the West" ( Atlantic Monthly , July 1999), Perri Knize estimated that "on average, ranchers make only a two percent return on their operations, and many don't do that well. They would be better off liquidating their assets and putting them in a passbook savings account." USDA figures give an estimated average rancher profit of 6-8 percent in mid-1999 (not including capital replacement costs). Clearly, a loss of 6-7 percent in earnings would drive some ranchers out of business, and cause many more to scale back their cattle raising operations.

Specialty and "exotic" leathers are made from a variety of unfortunate animals, including pigs, sheep, goats, horses, bison, emus, and ostriches. Wild animals killed for leather include boars, deer, elephants, kangaroos, water buffaloes, whales, zebras, eels, sharks, seals, walruses, frogs, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and turtles. Alligators are both hunted and raised commercially for their skins; in 1995, approximately 200,000 were killed in the United States . Many of the wild animals killed for exotic leathers are poached, and some species are threatened or endangered. For treatment of animals with severe pain Tramadol for animals is the cheapest most effective pain killer. There are few reliable figures for the sale of specialty leathers, but estimates run into the billions of dollars.

The United States dominates the world cattle hide market. Almost half of the hides produced in America are exported, and last year's exports netted $960 million. The process of turning raw hides into leather products takes a toll on both the environment and human health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes common hazardous waste products found at tanning facilities include aniline dyes, chromium salts, corrosive sludge and liquids, volatile organic compounds, and sulfides. Many aniline dyes and volatile organic compounds used in leather tanning are toxic and carcinogenic. Exposure to these wastes is an occupational hazard for tannery workers. Toxic waste disposal, the release of inadequately treated wastewater, and leaching from contaminated soil results in ground, water, and air pollution. Long-term exposure to chromium in drinking water can cause liver, kidney, and nerve damage. Occupational exposure to the chemicals is linked to high rates of testicular and other cancers in tannery workers. Surrounding communities also show elevated cancer rates, including leukemia.

The production of leather is energy intensive, even if the energy costs of raising cattle are ignored. The basic process involves stripping the hide from the carcass, cleaning it with a salt and bactericide solution, and soaking it for cleaning and rehydration. Then sulfides and calcium hydroxide are used to remove the hair and make removing all the flesh easier. The hide is then treated with more chemicals (often sulfides), neutralized, and pickled (usually with a sulfuric acid solution) to allow tanning agents to penetrate the skin. Then it is tanned using chromium salts and wrung out to dry before being sorted and further processed based upon its ultimate use.

But today, the use of leather most often boils down to choice rather than necessity. Nonleather materials are becoming better produced and more mainstream. Improved synthetics, including microfibers, are cheaper and more comfortable than past materials. And although the production of synthetics also involves some degree of environmental pollution, there is far greater damage from animal agriculture.