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The Truth Behind Leather

Unveiling the cruelty of its production

Today, in Western countries, there are more vegans than ever, people want to live in a way that is less cruel to animals and more kind to the environment. As we embrace cruelty-free alternatives it is crucial to understand the processes behind the products that we choose. Leather is an example of this, not many people know the truth of leather, where it comes from, how it is made and how leather affects, not just cows and other animals, but the environment as well.

leather chair
Every piece of leather used to be an animal that did not want to die

Animal Suffering

The leather industry relies on the skins of animals, such as cows, pigs, sheep and goats. Behind every piece of leather, whether it's a pair of shoes, a belt, jacket or leather seats in a car, there is heart breaking suffering. Animals that are bred and raised for their skins have to live in the same conditions as those that are bred for meat. They are kept confined in small, cramped spaces, often with no access to the outdoors. They will have their tails docked, their horns cut off and be castrated, often without anaesthesia. The impact on their physical and mental health is immense, but this is of no concern to the leather industry as the only thing that is important is their skin, not the animal itself. On top of this is deforestation and land degradation. It is a misconception that land claimed from rainforests for the raising of animals and growing of animal feed is purely for the production of meat, the truth is that a proportion of the rainforest destruction is down to leather.

After being born in and confined to a farm, animals are trucked to the slaughterhouse. Killing animals for their skins involves the same practices as killing animals for their flesh, being stunned, gassed, electrocuted, having their throats cut so that they can bleed out and it is after this that the process of turning their skin into fabric begins.

Processing Skins

After the slaughter the animals have their skins removed, pulled off. These animal skins are then transported to tanneries, where the skins are transformed into leather fabric. Tanning involves using toxic chemicals, such as chromium salts, formaldehyde and other noxious pollutants that pose a risk to both human health and environment. The chemicals used in tanning leather, if not treated properly, can contaminate waterways, pollute soil and harm aquatic life leading to dead zones in waterways. The excessive amounts of water required for tanning of leather as well as huge amounts of energy further exacerbates the environmental impact.

It takes roughly ten days to turn an animal's skin into leather and the process involves 23 steps:

1. Curing - Hides, the animal skins used in leather production, must be preserved to prevent deterioration. Preservation methods often involve salting, freezing, chilling, or the use of chemicals.

2. Soaking - Once the hide has been cured, it is soaked in water for several hours - sometimes even days. This is to rehydrate the hide, as well as to remove any excess salt or dirt, such as dirt that may have gotten onto the animal skin during skinning or transportation.

3. Painting - This is the removing wool from sheepskins using sulphides.

4. Liming - This has a number of purposes, it removes any unwanted hair from the hides through the introduction of alkali, this process leaves raw animal skin, more commonly referred to as a pelt.

5. Fleshing - Fleshing is the process of passing the pelt through a machine that removes any tissue, excess skin, muscle or fat, from the flesh side of the pelt.

6. De-Liming - After the addition of lime the pelt must be neutralised.

7. Bating - Enzymes are applied to the pelt to flatten and "relax" it.

8. Pickling - Pickling is the application of weak acid or salt solutions to make pelts more acidic.

9. De-Greasing - Very simply, pelts have excess grease, animal fat, removed with water or a solvent.

10. Tanning - Tanning chemically alters the collagen structure of a pelt, so that it is protected from chemicals, moisture, and microorganisms. It is usually done by using:

  • Minerals: A mineral, such as salts of chromium, is the most common leather tanning material.

  • Oils: When a pelt is tanned with oil, the result is a much softer leather.

  • Vegetables: Plant extracts may be used to produce thick, firm, and brown leather, ideal for belts, shoes, bags, and cases.

Once a pelt has been tanned, it is now considered leather – but there is still more that has to be done before it is ready for sale to a manufacturer.

11. Splitting - This is the process of slicing leather into two layers. One layer will have no grain surface and can can be used to produce suede or have an artificial grain surface applied to it.

12. Shaving - The second piece of leather, with the grain surface, is passed through another machine that shaves the non-grain side to create the required thickness.

13. Neutralisation - Remaining chemical residues are removed.

14. Dyeing - Any number of colours may be applied at this stage to produce the desired fabric for the final item.

15. Fatliquoring - The leather is lubricated with oil to make it flexible and soft.

16. Samming - Remaining moisture is removed using machines.

17. Setting Out - This is where the leather is stretched and the grain surface is smoothed out.

18. Final Drying - Leather is generally dried until less than 20% water content remains.

19. Staking & Dry Drumming - The leather is manipulated to make it softer and more flexible.

20. Buffing & Brushing - This is the removal of the flesh surface of the leather to make it softer, brushing happens after to remove any dust accumulated during buffing.

21. Finishing - Is done to produce an even colour to the leather and give it shine.

22. Final Grading - Prior to sale, the tanner must grade the colour intensity and uniformity of the leather, as well as its feel, softness, thickness, and texture. Any naturally occurring defects, such as scratches, must also be noted during the final grading.

23. Measurement - The final step, measurement, is to measure the area of each individual piece, as leather is sold by area. To ensure complete accuracy, measurements are done by machine.

For a "natural" product leather requires a lot of processing.

Animal Free Leather Alternatives

There are many cruelty free leather alternatives, not all of them being plastic based. Pineapple leather, Pinatex, mushroom leather, MuSkin and other plant-based fabrics provide stylish, durable and sustainable alternatives to animal based fabrics.

Leather production is not only inherently cruel, but also environmentally destructive. By understanding the dark reality behind the creation of leather goods, we can make informed choices that align with our values or compassion and sustainability. Choosing vegan alternatives is a step towards a more ethical and humane world and a way to contribute to a healthier planet. Together, we can redefine fashion, promoting a future where style and compassion go hand in hand.


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