Young cows/ calves looking towards camera

The truth about leather.

While the leather industry may bank on the perception that animal skin is 'prestigious' or 'stylish', the reality for the animals whose skins are used is anything but glamorous...
Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated December 7, 2021

From belts and boots to car seats and key rings, whether it be for ‘fashion’ or accessories, leather is everywhere. But what – or more accurately, who – is leather made from, and how?

What is ‘leather’?

While most people associate leather with cows, the reality is that many different animals are killed to make leather. Leather is made from the skin of animals – once an animal’s skin is removed, it is preserved through a process called ‘tanning’, which uses strong chemicals to prevent the skin from decomposing. Animals pay the ultimate price for leather — but the tanning process can be toxic to both people and the environment.

The animal victims

A wide variety of animal species are used to make leather — most notably cattle, but also pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, sting rays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats and dogs. Even baby animals don’t escape the leather industry — with the skins of calves, kids and lambs considered particularly ‘valuable’ because of their softness.

Hundreds of thousands of days-old ‘bobby’ calves born into the dairy industry are slaughtered every single year in Australia, with their skins then used to make boots, bags and other products for the fashion industry. Even unborn calves (called ‘slinks’), whose pregnant mothers are killed in slaughterhouses, may be skinned too. The skin from these premature animals is unfortunately particularly sought-after for its ‘delicateness’ – but if more consumers knew, they would likely choose kinder alternatives.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A grid of different animals: pig, lamb, kangaroo, dog, snake, crocodile, seal, cow, kitten, stingray, horse, emu, fish, deer, and goat.
There are many victims of the leather industry whose skins are used to make products for the sake of profit.

Isn’t leather just a ‘by-product’?

It is a common misconception that leather is simply a ‘by-product’ of meat production. Whilst it’s true that animals are often used for their meat too (such as in the case of cattle and sheep), their skin can still represent a significant portion of the income made on the sale of their body parts – contributing to the overall commercial viability of the enterprise.

So, leather is rather a ‘co-product’ of the meat industry (not just a ‘by-product’), and may contribute to driving demand for more animals to be raised and killed.

Animals bred and killed for their skin in Australia

For animals like cattle and sheep who are killed for their meat and leather in Australia, life isn’t easy. Caught up in profit-driven industries, they have been denied the same legal protection given to most other animals. As a result, these sensitive animals are routinely subjected to painful procedures like castration, de-horning, branding and mulesing — often without any pain relief.

These animals are also raised on such large and remote stations that monitoring and care for them is infrequent — and injured and sick animals may be forced to suffer for long periods in pain, untreated and unnoticed.

And ultimately, all animals used for their leather must face the stresses of slaughter.

Even one of Australia’s most iconic animals – the kangaroo – is shot by the millions every year, with their skins used to make sporting shoes, gloves, accessories and souvenirs. Tragically, in addition to the commercial killing of adult kangaroos, thousands of dependent joeys become ‘collateral damage’ of this brutal slaughter, and are either bludgeoned to death, or left to starve when their mothers are killed for their skin and meat.

Imported ‘leather’ – a grim fate for animals

Australia also imports leather and leather products from various countries — including some with no animal welfare laws, and appalling track records of animal cruelty. China, the world’s largest exporter of leather, kills millions of cats and dogs for their skin and meat every year. India’s leather trade is also one of the biggest in the world. As many of the country’s provinces forbid the slaughter of ‘sacred’ cows, these animals are often forced to walk long distances across borders to be brutally killed in neighbouring provinces and countries. Along the gruelling journey, exhausted animals can be beaten and tortured with chilli and tobacco rubbed into their eyes to make them keep walking.

There is no requirement to label leather products, making it extremely difficult and often impossible for a consumer to ascertain which species of animal ‘leather’ has come from, and in which country he or she was raised and killed for their skin.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Cows in India can be forced to walk gruelling distances to be slaughtered in neighbouring provinces. When exhausted animals collapse, they may be beaten and have irritants rubbed into their eyes to get them moving again.
Image credit: PETA

Not only the animals suffer – people and our planet do, too!

While leather is often promoted as being a ‘natural’ fibre, the tanning process can involve an array of toxic chemicals which permanently alter the protein structure of the skin.

Workers in some international tanneries have been documented to suffer from skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals. These chemicals can also cause extreme pollution to air, soil and water, resulting in devastating effects to local human and animal populations.

Kinder, animal-free alternatives exist!

As more people become aware of the true cost of leather to animals, people and the environment, demand is growing for kinder alternatives.

Many retailers and brands now offer a range of leather-free bags, shoes, belts and other products that are not only fashionable, but also cruelty-free, with many utilising new technology and more eco-friendly, plant-based materials. In fact, even some products that look like leather are actually synthetic, so it’s always a good idea to check the label!

Shop kindly to make a difference for animals

Tread softly for animals and the planet by choosing cruelty-free alternatives to leather. You don’t even need to step out your front door – there are some great online stores that specialise in cruelty-free shoes, handbags, and other leather-free apparel:

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift?

Gift a donation and get a personalised certificate in time for Christmas!

Give now
Close-up of beautiful sheep looking direct to camera with overlay of Christmas stars.