The Myth of Harmlessness: The Leather, Wool and Down Industries Are the Meat Industry

Before getting into the last in my series about the often hidden side of some animal use industries, I wanted to thank you if you’ve read my previous pieces about the dairy and egg industries, and, if you haven’t yet, please consider checking them out and sharing if you see fit. I also wanted to say that my intention with creating this series has never been about wanting anyone to feel guilty, powerless or in despair but to pull back the curtains a bit on some very opaque industries and their widespread practices. The intention was to write something I wished I’d read when I was still unclear on how I was contributing to animal cruelty so I could be better educated and make decisions that better reflected my values. Too often, I see activists sharing links to truly upsetting news with what seems to be an underlying motive of — I’m not sure. Shock and awe? A wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of, “Humans: ain’t we awful?” shared experience? That’s not my goal here.

I feel it’s important to acknowledge that writers and other communicators have something of a responsibility to not add to the collective despair, especially during this really challenging time, when our cups seem to be more than overflowing. My overarching conviction in creating this series is something that is ultimately hopeful despite the bleakness of the subjects: When we know better, we do better. Thankfully, we are living in an era when we have abundant alternatives to inflicting cruelties in many areas of our lives, from how we treat other humans to how we treat the other species of this earth. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by what I have written, please practice self-compassion and self-care. Give yourself a break. Come back to it when you’re feeling better. I tried to write about these painful subjects in as unemotional but fair a way as possible. I simply tried to tell the truth as I know it.

Last, I want to thank you for your time. It is one of the most generous gifts we can give and I truly appreciate it.


For this piece, I wanted to direct my exploration into animal agribusiness to non-food items because it’s clear when you research the topic, the utilization of animal by-products and body parts extends far beyond the food we eat. While hunters and hipster butchers alike boast about using all of the animals they kill and/or carve as a justification for consuming another’s body, in reality, there are few industries that are as cooly efficient as animal agribusiness. It was the very precise and efficient disassembly line at the Swift and Company meat-packing plant in Chicago that inspired Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line. Wastefulness is no more a hallmark of animal agribusiness than any other massive industry with razor-thin profit margins and a desire to stay profitable but they operate at a whole different level. In fact, their extraction and use of every last drop of the animals they kill makes most other industries look thoroughly profligate in comparison.

It is in this need for frugal efficiency where we learn why animal by-products can be so ubiquitous. For example, some animal products that are obtained from an animal’s corpse besides the obvious flesh are blood meal (used in fertilizer); intestines (used as sausage casings); tallow, or animal fat (used in deep-frying); gelatin (used in candy and capsules); lanolin (used in personal care products) and bones (used for bleaching sugar). These are just some examples and some uses. In other words, the real reason animal-derived micro-ingredients may be in cane sugar is not because it is necessary but because an outlet and market for bones was developed as another revenue stream for animal exploitation industries.

The commodities mined from animals’ remains aren’t just the remnants from slaughterhouses that would otherwise go to waste but salable items that help to make the meat industry profitable; further, many animals are raised for this production primarily, and the bodies left behind or by-products of production are then sometimes excavated for what can be sold other to other industries. Sometimes the secondary use is the flesh or other body parts. Sometimes not. For this piece, I am going to be exploring the leather, wool and down feather industries to better understand their role within the meat industrial complex. As with dairy and eggs, often there is more — much more — than meets the eye.

Leather

I will start this out by saying that understanding the needless brutality of leather took me a while, even as a vegan, and during that time, I wore leather, including my once-beloved vintage suede fringe jacket, until I finally learned more. Of course I recoiled from fur but I thought that leather was kind of a “victimless crime,” sort of like that people were eating meat anyway, we should at least not let this stuff left behind go to waste. It turns out that I, like many others, did not understand the cruelty footprint of the leather industry itself and how it buttresses the meat industry.

Despite how it may seem, leather is not just the skin of a cow (or goat, pig, sheep, etc.) that needs a purpose after the animal has been killed for the flesh: the leather industry is a more than $2 billion dollar export industry in the US and is approximately $93.2 billion worldwide. It is estimated that an animal’s hide accounts for between 7.5% — 10% of the animal’s market worth, which makes it among the most valuable parts by pound. According to Handling, Grading and Curing of Hides and Skins, “If it were not for the value of the hide, cow-calf profitability would be lower, resulting in fewer cows, fewer calves, and fewer slaughter animals. Less beef would be produced, and margins would be smaller for most segments of the beef industry. Over the past three decades, hides have increased in value more rapidly than meat because the demand for leather has been stronger worldwide than the demand for beef.” In other words, by purchasing leather, consumers are propping up the meat industry and making what they do profitable.

An animal’s hide turned into leather is far less a by-product of the meat industry than a co-product of it. Purchasing leather products directly helps the meat industry remain solvent and is a vote in favor of all the mutilations and everyday cruelties of the business: forced impregnations, castration, dehorning, branding, tail-docking, ear-tagging without painkillers or follow-up care, separating mother from calf, and, of course, slaughter.

Most skins turned into leather come from the animals used and slaughtered by the beef and dairy industries. Not just the adults, either: there is a “luxury” market for the hides of newborn male calves (ever hear of calfskin?), valued for their very soft and supple skins, as well as unborn calves, also called slink skins, taken from their mothers’ wombs at slaughter. Other species, like snakes, lizards, ostriches and alligators, are kept in crowded, brutal conditions and slaughtered for their “exotic” skins and little else; of course, the leather industry contributes to the same collective ecological burden of industrial agriculture.

Speaking of ecological burden, turning an animal’s skin into a finished leather product requires harsh preservatives, dyes, stiffeners and more, which make it very hard to biodegrade and also presents [graphic link follows] human rights concerns as disadvantaged workers, many of whom are minors, are exposed to dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals; poorly overseen or unmonitored tanneries also [graphic link follows] contaminate communities with run-off into local waterways. A 2008 study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research found that tannery workers in India had double the risk of morbidity when compared to control groups.

The leather industry, no matter how you look at it, is exceptionally cruel and produces something that is far from a harmless by-product.

Wool

Wool is often thought of like the hair sheep would grow anyway. What could be wrong with cutting their wool to keep them comfortable and using it as a natural fiber?

In reality, the wool industry puts the value of what a sheep produces front and center, making it no different from other forms of animal agriculture, despite its wholesome, pastoral marketing. The idea that shearing sheep is a compassionate act for their own comfort is a false narrative spun by the industry. While sheep do naturally grow fleece to protect themselves from extreme temperatures, they have been selectively bred to produce more than they would on their own to offer more product yield for farmers, just like egg-laying hens and dairy cows. Undomesticated sheep will naturally grow as much or as little wool as they need to be comfortable, no human intervention required.

To acquire wool, sheep are restrained and often shorn using electric shears; painful nicks and deeper cuts to the skin can occur if the shearer is hurried, less skilled or distracted, or if the clippers are in poor shape. As prey animals, being restrained can be incredibly stressful. In addition to the common injuries from shearing, sheep, particularly Merino wool producers, routinely endure mulesing, where flaps of skin are cut around a sheep’s hindquarters to reduce attracting blowflies and their larvae, which causes a condition called flystrike. The reason they are so susceptible to flystrike is that sheep have been selectively bred to have wrinkled skin under their fleece, which allows them to produce more wool. Further, the thicker wool they’ve been bred to produce for market demand is more easily soiled, which also attracts flies.

Many people who buy wool do not realize that as with other forms of animal agriculture, painful cruelties such as ear-tagging, tail-docking, dehorning, castration and forced impregnations are business-as-usual in the wool industry, as well as permanent lamb and ewe separation. When a sheep’s wool production decreases, they are slaughtered for meat. In Australia, millions of sheep each year are sent to the Middle East on packed ships where the trip can last weeks and many die in transit. This is called live export. Those who survive the grueling transit over water will be killed when they reach their destination; according to Halal law, they will be conscious when their throats are cut.

Like leather, the wool industry, no matter how you look at it, produces something that is exceptionally cruel and far from a harmless by-product.

Down

Feathers are used for many purposes, from craft feathers and boas to earrings and home décor, and they rely on using the plumage of farmed, captive birds. As with other forms of animal agribusiness, purchasable feathers are nearly always the end result of exploitation and do not offer a glimpse into the cruelties that happen behind the scenes. While there are feathers found in many aspects of fashion, accessories and home products, I will be focusing on the down industry for the purpose of this piece as it is biggest market for feathers.

Ducks and geese generally supply the down used by the industry, which is found closest to the skin, under the sturdier, quilled outer feathers, providing insulation from different temperatures and weather conditions. It is that softness, fluffiness and warmth that adapts so well to the desires of the market: from pillows to comforters and coats to sleeping bags, down is another animal product, like leather and wool, that has been used by humankind for centuries.

The industry uses down from confined waterfowl that are kept in conditions consistent with industrial agriculture but even on smaller farms, the birds will end up as meat (including foie gras) once feather production has decreased. Down is taken after molting, slaughter or through live plucking. In live plucking, a bird is restrained while down is ripped from the bird’s chest and abdomen, like how hair would be torn from a human head, causing bloody, painful wounds in the process. This brutal live plucking occurs every nine-to-ten weeks of a bird’s life, perhaps enduring up to four pluckings in a lifetime, making it more profitable for the farm. Regardless of whether a bird’s feathers were collected after death or while alive, the fact remains that the down industry is inseparable from the duck and goose meat industries and is simply another revenue stream for it.

Like leather and wool, the down feather industry, no matter how you look at it, produces something that is exceptionally cruel and far from a harmless by-product.


I am certainly not expecting anyone to go vegan overnight.

As I said at the beginning, when I first went vegan, I had leather items; I was also confused about wool and down. Further, as also mentioned at the beginning, because we live in a profoundly non-vegan world, animal-derived ingredients can be found in everything from tires (stearic acid) to tattoo ink, which can have animal ingredients in the pigments. All too often, I find people become so overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of animal-based ingredients, they figure that since they can’t ever really be vegan, why even bother trying? The point is to do your best and keep supporting cruelty-free alternatives. For example, if you’re on life-saving or improving medications that have been tested on animals, why not volunteer for an organization like PCRM what you can do to help make animal experimentation obsolete? It is a very flawed world, but it is what you do with this very flawed world that matters. Beating yourself up because we’re not there yet is pointless, and more about the ego than building a more compassionate world.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I did not write this series to upset anyone but to educate so people can make informed choices. Thankfully, there are more choices every day for opting out of needless cruelty and pointing us toward humane and sustainable alternatives.

Please consider checking out this vegan starter guide (or another as there are so many to choose from), this guide for new vegans, all these vegan recipes, and this free mentoring program for additional resources.

Thank you.

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