Philosophy In Seconds

62. Fashion or felony? The Ethics of the Leather Industry

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PETA’s article on “The Leather Industry” has quite a clincher:

“Fashion should be fun, not fatal!”

Naturally, one is struck by the emphasis on the word “fatal”. The leather industry is seasoned with controversy in the eyes of animal rights advocates and vegans who believe it to be as grotesque as the factory farming that takes place for the meat industry. However, a point that is stressed very often by leather manufacturers and sellers is that leather is a byproduct – that is to say that once an animal has been slaughtered for the meat industry, the leather can be used in favour of reducing waste. While the leather industry is a difficult one to defend, it is perhaps misleading of an organisation as renowned and influential as PETA to suggest that “buying leather directly contributes to factory farming and slaughterhouses.” This article will explore both perspectives of the argument by pitting the leather industry against PETA (and other such animal activist organisations).

Before we begin, let us consider the relationship between the Native American and the American bison. Emblematic of their culture, Native Americans rely on these animals for food, clothing and also for their way of life. Historically, when tasked with hunting the creature for food, the Native Americans use every part of the bison for their various needs. Whilst this model certainly isn’t applied in big leather industries in China, this piece of historical information does certainly help to provide some context for how valuable animals are to humans. When it comes to leather, it is estimated that most people are carrying four leather items on their person at all times be it for their shoes, watch-strap, belt or coat – a prima facie indicator of the importance of leather.

PETA often argues that leather is not a byproduct but a co-product. Since this is not clearly defined in their article or elsewhere, co-product can be taken to mean “a good which has equal value and is jointly sought from where it is extracted”. With this in mind, PETA argues (as mentioned before) that “buying leather directly contributes to factory farming and slaughterhouses”. Horror stories are propagated about the worst leather practices in India where cows’ tails are broken and chilli powder poured into their eyes to keep them awake on the walk to the slaughterhouse. They publish data that the global leather industry is directly responsible for the deaths of one billion animals. Additionally, PETA cites the environmental damages associated with the actual tanning processes of leather. Thus, their alternative is faux leather or “pleather” – synthetic leather made from plastic which has been rolled to look and feel like actual leather.

Despite the seemingly convincing arguments and campaigns run by PETA,  there are many issues that are overlooked and additionally  misrepresented by PETA.  Dr Phil Hadley of EBLEX (an organisation that is responsible for beef and lamb deliveries) states unequivocally that “the leader industry does not slaughter a single animal”, it instead uses a valuable by-product of the meat industry. If this is in fact the case, then PETA can at most claim that leather industries indirectly contribute to factory farming, which naturally leather industries are trying to separate themselves from. Going further, it has been estimated that leather and other hides constitute only 10% of the market value of an animal, weakening further the ‘direct’ connection between purchasing leather and factory farming (Leather Technology Centre). Also, it is argued that since a huge beef market already exists, once beef has been extracted it would be wasteful and in fact environmentally wasteful not to extract leather and other byproducts. Hadley argues that these byproducts pose a problem for waste elimination and sees leather industries as a win-win since they do not waste and are extremely useful. Thus, the leather industries do have valid insights to provide to the debate.

Personally, as the son of a third-generation family-owned Dutch leather company, I find myself constantly at odds with my peers who so vehemently dislike the whole practice. In a position like mine, the ethical qualms surrounding fashion are no stranger to me or my family who are indebted to this industry for all that it has done for us. We strive to get our leather from sources that are entirely different to what PETA has reported. Nevertheless, the controversy is one which I recognize and will continue to consider.

In conclusion, one can certainly see why the leather industry is a controversial one, but hopefully not as controversial as the meat industry. The environmental issues with leather tanneries is a valid point raised by PETA and this will drive leather industries to promote more sustainable production. One can see, in an analogous fashion to the Native Americans, that leather industries are simply making use of an existing by-product which would simply cause waste problems if it was unused. Leather industries staunchly defend that they are not responsible for slaughtering animals, which suggests that they actually agree with PETA’s assertion about fashion. Fashion is about freedom of expression, wearing leather is one such freedom comparable to sharing a controversial opinion. We may conclude by suggesting an addendum to PETA’s comment about fashion:

“Fashion should be fun, free, and not fatal.”

Bibliography:

  1. Smithsonian Zoo. “American Bison and American Indian Nations.” American Bison. Smithsonian, 2014. Web. 19 July 2017.
  2. The Guardian. “The ethical wardrobe: Is it OK to wear leather?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Aug. 2008. Web. 19 July 2017.
  3. PETA. “The Leather Industry.” PETA. PETA, 2017. Web. 19 July 2017.
  4. Leather Technology Center. “Facts & figures about leather.” Advice on leather care, leather cleaning and more brought to you by BLC, the leather experts. Leather Technology Center, 2007. Web. 19 July 2017.
  5. Hadley, Phil, PhD. “Meat industry: by-product recycled.” Nothing to Hide. World Trades Publishing, 2014. Web. 19 July 2017.
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