Unlike some animal ingredients, leather can usually be spotted quickly, but since it’s also so ubiquitous it can just as easily be overlooked. It’s found in clothing and personal accessory items, like shoes, belts, gloves, and handbags. It can show up unexpectedly on some of these items, such as in the case of buckles on a canvas messenger bag, or a tag on a pair of denim jeans. It’s also frequently used for upholstery, so you’ll likely find it in furniture and car seats as well.
Since animal use is the dominant paradigm throughout the world, vegans generally cannot make assumptions about the products we use. It can be surprising and upsetting to learn how much of our material culture is literally built from the bodies of animals and, while being a more active and vigilant consumer can seem daunting for new vegans, when weighed against the death and suffering of billions of animals, it is surely the least we can do.
By far, most leather is sourced from cows. Its production shares a common misconception with dairy: that it is incidental to the meat industry. In other words, it is often assumed that leather is a mere byproduct of meat and that purchasing and wearing it does not contribute to a brutal industry and a profoundly immoral institution. This is a false assumption. Not only is leather highly profitable for the meat industry (as explained below), a large portion of worldwide sales come from animals killed primarily for their skins.
Unlike fur, which has become highly controversial thanks to the now widespread awareness about the cruelty involved in its production, the use of leather (which is also the skin of an animal) continues to be overlooked, even by those who identify as vegan and would never consider buying or wearing fur.
As with dairy, leather and meat are mutually sustaining industries. In economic terms, a cow’s skin is roughly 10% of her total “value,” which actually makes the skin the most profitable portion of the cow’s body. Three pounds of leather, for example, is worth considerably more than three pounds of flesh. The sale of skins helps make the meat industry—and animal farming—profitable.
Many people are already familiar with the brutality involved in factory farming, but these industry standards only compound the immorality of killing an animal for our completely unnecessary and frivolous purposes.
Leather is also sourced from other animals in lesser quantities. Pigs, goats, sheep and lambs, cats and dogs, deer, elk, buffalo, oxen, yaks, horses, kangaroos, snakes, alligators, elephants, ostriches, fishes, sharks, and even stingrays are all among the victims of the leather industry. The products that result from their deaths are generally used for clothing and will usually advertise themselves, since the “exotic” source of material is considered desirable. Slink, an exceptionally soft form of leather that is one of the most highly prized, is actually made from the skin of unborn calves.
Despite its ubiquity, leather is easily replaced with both natural and synthetic alternatives. The list of vegan textiles available is too numerous to list in full here, but includes cotton, denim, hemp, rubber, acrylic fiber, etc. If you really want the look and feel of leather, synthetic pleather is an option.
Note: There is some debate as to whether vegans should be promoting or endorsing textiles that approximate the products of violence, and this is certainly a question worth considering. As with faux meats, it is likely that pleather will be most useful as a transitional product.
What should new vegans do with their pre-owned leather items? We here at Gentle World are firm believers that the only appropriate action is to give these items a decent burial. They are, after all, someone’s body parts.
As always, when replacing these items, we recommend buying all items second-hand, to lessen the environmental impact of even your vegan purchases.
However, if you are unable to do this, it has become much easier to find vegan clothing at virtually any apparel outlet, although reading labels is always well-advised. As people evolve toward greater awareness and sensitivity to the rights of non-human animals, there is a greater demand for these products.
For those of us who feel strongly about supporting businesses that specifically promote nonviolence and veganism, there are several choices here as well, including online stores like MooShoes, Alternative Outfitters, Herbivore Clothing, Vegan Essentials, Doshi, and an ever-growing number of others.