Fashion or Felony: The Ethics of Leather

“Fashion should be fun, not fatal.”

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 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 influential as PETA to suggest that “buying leather directly contributes to factory farming and slaughterhouses”.

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 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.

Photo: Max Pixel

However, PETA argues that leather is not a byproduct but a co-product: “a good which has equal value and is jointly sought from where it is extracted”. Horror stories are propagated about the worst leather practices in India where cows’ tails are broken and chilli powder is 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. Thus, their alternative is faux leather or “pleather” – synthetic leather made from plastic which has been rolled to look and feel like actual leather.

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 entirely different to what PETA has reported. Nevertheless, the controversy is one which I recognise and will continue to consider.

Photo: Pixabay

Whilst one can certainly see why the leather industry is controversial, leather industries themselves staunchly defend that they are not responsible for slaughtering animals, suggesting that they actually agree with PETA’s assertion about fashion. Fashion is about freedom of expression, the choices of the clothes we wear being a reflection of the values or ideas we may believe in. Wearing leather is one such freedom, comparable to sharing a controversial opinion. One need only look at the punk rock bands of the 70’s who sported anti-establishment messages with their signature attire, showing that leather can give its wearer more than just comfort; often times it speaks for them. To conclude, may I suggest an addendum to PETA’s comment about fashion:

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



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