The true cost of leather

As the love of leopard print still dominates the fast fashion market and the nation is gripped by Netflix series Tiger King; are we considering the impact on animals in our clothing choices, outside of refusing to wear fur?

From raw material to final product, the production of leather results in unregulated slaughter of livestock, large scale water contamination and slave labour. It’s a fairly harrowing list for any shopper, let alone those who’ve chosen a vegan lifestyle.

Are consumers made aware of the incredible impact on people and the planet, as well as animals, in the pursuit of the latest trends?

No, they’re not.

To help you better understand the issue, we’ve broken it down into three components:

1. The industry

There’s no getting away from it really, both the fast fashion and luxury industry greatly benefit from the production of leather goods.

Fashion houses support their ever growing revenue with a pillar of handbag sales as the craze for designer bags sees no sign of diminishing. It’s estimated that, in order to meet this demand, over one billion cows are slaughtered. In our bid to get the covetous ‘it’ bag, production increases and with it, consumption, waste and corner cutting to meet demand. Fast fashion acts as a younger sibling in this scenario, using trends from the top of the chain to create collections on an even larger scale, thus adding to the demand.

Brands cleverly use a model of exclusivity, luxury and a false sense of quality to increase sales, all the while a bottle neck begins in production. Leather, formerly a luxury item, was produced in small quantities with prices that reflected the logistics behind safe practices and craftsmanship. As the demand continues to grow, so does the amount of labour and material required to keep up.

This bring us neatly on to two.

2. The impact

Growth and demand in an industry sounds good, right? When managed properly, growth is what any business could hope for but it also poses a risk to those in the supply chain if not handled properly.

As with many articles on sustainability within the fashion industry; Bangladesh is our primary case study for the stark reality of mismanaging demand, as the country meets around 10% global leather market demand.

Animals & Earth

To allow for uninterrupted production, the transport and slaughter of these animals is often conducted illegally and inhumanely. This continued rise in the use of livestock also has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. Then we need to consider production. Millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals are required to produce leather on this scale for commercial sale.

Both PETA and Greenpeace have published extensive reports on animal welfare and the ecological impact of this demand. Both articles serve to highlight that the damage goes beyond the important matter of animal welfare. The leather industry as we know it is posing a very immediate threat to our rain forests and wildlife too.


The fashion industry is no stranger to terrible working conditions and slave labour and leather production is sadly no different. A combination of chemicals are used to treat and finish leather which are often toxic to humans, including formaldehyde and cyanide. When you pair this with squalid working conditions, low ventilation, long hours and often a complete lack of effective water treatment, this process has immeasurable ramifications both in and out of the factory.

As the documentary, River Blue, powerfully demonstrates, concentrated quantities of these chemicals are being dumped into main waiter supplies with insufficient treatment facilities, meaning this is irrigated into crops and makes it’s way into the clean water supply. The impacts of this have been reported as life altering, with life expectancy dramatically reduced in the regions surrounding leather production.

3. The solution

Slow down and stop where you can. It seems as though this is a mantra that echoes through all Nn articles but it’s the drumbeat in the call to be sustainable.

Business as usual can no longer be sustained by the planet or it’s inhabitants. We could face unimaginable consequences as a result of climate change if we don’t begin to change our habits and challenge our industry to be better.

The first step is buying less and this has the greatest impact to the planet.

The second is buying second hand or researching leather alternatives. Not all alternative goods are made equally, so it’s worth looking into labour conditions for any brand you choose and the chemicals used in production. Some companies offering alternatives also continue to use animal products too, so savvy shopping is key.

The third and final way to make a change is campaigning. Reliance on consumers to change the industry is not sustainable. Companies can and must change their practices as we enter a climate emergency and you have a part to play in that.

Get mad. They’re not giving you the choice to shop fairly in order to increase their profit margins. They are exploiting people around the world and supporting millions of tons of garment wastage. Not sure how to campaign or even where to start? Start by tagging your favourite fast fashion brand on your social accounts and ask #whomademyclothes?

You can find out more about how to join the fashion revolution and how to use your voice for change right here on Nn


An overview of Bangladesh’s leather industry, Greenpeace- Slaughtering the Amazon, River Blue by Mark Angelo, Pay up petition, The carcinogenicity of metals in humans and Is it time to give up leather? – Lucy Siegle for The Guardian

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