Leather: The true cost to animals and humans

The 2013 tragedy of Rana Plaza was a defining moment in the push for ethical standards in fashion. Over a thousand people lost their lives when the eight-storey building collapsed1International Labour Organization, ‘The Rana Plaza accident and its aftermath’. November 2017, viewed on 31 May 2019,  https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/geip/WCMS_614394/lang–en/index.htm. In the aftermath of the horrific incident, the eyes of the fashion world turned to the conditions of garment workers, with major brands compelled to introduce new standards to ensure a safe and healthy fashion industry in Bangladesh2 K McVeigh, ‘Major US names missing as retailers sign deal to improve Bangladesh safety’, The Guardian. July 2013, viewed on 27 May 2019,  https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/08/retail-bangladesh-factories-improve-safety-deal

While this immediate movement produced some positive outcomes for people 3 Accord on Fire and Safety Building in Bangladesh, ‘Achievements 2013 Accord’. July 2018, viewed 29 May 2019, https://bangladeshaccord.org/2018/07/20/achievements-2013-accord/, in the same time period, little has been done for animals, namely the widespread abuse of cattle in the Bangladeshi fashion industry4 S A Rahman, ‘Cow smuggling…it’s how Bangladesh gets its beef’. January 2013, viewed on 27 May 2019,  https://www.cnbc.com/id/100410788

So why is it important to consider human rights and animal welfare together?

Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and even calves and lambs supply almost all the leather being used in today’s fashion industry. In fact, every year 355 million cattle, 475 million goats, and 531 million sheep are slaughtered.

Global farming practices can involve serious animal welfare issues throughout an animal’s life from birth to slaughter, including often violent and brutal treatment, most of which is legal and standard practice.     

Drawing on criminal psychology research, recent studies in the fashion industry have brought to light the links between animal violence and human welfare5Ingrid Molderez, Perrine De Landtsheer, “Sustainable Fashion and Animal Welfare: Non-Violence as a Business Strategy” in Business, Ethics and Peace. Published online: 21 Sep 2015; 351-370.DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/S1572-832320150000024024. As Ingrid Molderez of the Research Centre for Economics and Corporate Sustainability in Brussels notes, as long as there is violence to animals, there will be violence to humans6 Molderez and Landtsheer 2015, p. 351.

To illustrate this point, we can look to Hazaribagh, the centre of the Bangladesh leather tanning industry. A 2013 study labelled the city the world’s 5th most polluted location7 Hazaribagh named 5th most polluted place on earth’, Dhaka Tribune. November 2013, viewed 27 May 2019, https://www.dhakatribune.com/uncategorized/2013/11/05/hazaribagh-named-5th-most-polluted-place-on-earth, while also home to a litany of human rights abuses for the sake of fashion. 

In 2012, Human Rights Watch uncovered workers, including children as young as 7, forced to work 10 hour days, often without even the most basic protection8 Human Rights Watch, ‘Toxic tanneries: the health repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh leather’. October 2012, viewed 27 May 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/10/08/toxic-tanneries/health-repercussions-bangladeshs-hazaribagh-leather . The World Health Organisation estimates 90% of workers in Hazaribagh will die before reaching 509 S Boseley, ‘Child labourers exposed to toxic chemicals dying before 50’, The Guardian. March 2017, viewed 29 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/plight-of-child-workers-facing-cocktail-of-toxic-chemicals-exposed-by-report-bangladesh-tanneries . With nowhere near enough inspectors to audit tannery facilities in Hazaribagh, it became an enforcement-free zone for human rights and environmental abuses10 Human Rights Watch 2012, p. 11.

Now consider India where cattle slaughter is illegal for cultural and religious reasons in all but two states. This results in a huge surplus of cattle, including overused and abused dairy animals that cannot be handled by the slaughterhouses11 J Bhattacharjee, ‘India-Bangladesh border management: the challenge of cattle smuggling’, Meghalaya Times, viewed 14 December 2018 . Coupled with this is the fact in Bangladesh, India has a neighbouring country with a leather tanning industry second only to clothes manufacturing 12 R Ahamad, ‘Tannery workers’ minimum wages not implemented’, New Age Bangladesh. September 2018, viewed 31 May 2019, http://www.newagebd.net/article/50098/tannery-workers-minimum-wages-not-implemented .

Because of this, cattle are moved across the Indian-Bangladeshi border, resulting in high concern for India’s cattle during transportation. On foot and without rest, water, food or heat protection, cows and buffaloes are forced to travel hundreds of kilometres. They’re beaten, their tails are broken deliberately, and tobacco and chilli peppers are rubbed into their eyes to keep them moving or to force them to stand when they’ve collapsed. Their hooves are often bleeding and worn down to stumps. On trucks and trains, they’re unable to avoid trampling each other and gouging one another with their horns13Plannthin D-K, ‘Animal ethics and welfare in the fashion and lifestyle industries’, in Green Fashion: Environmental Footprints and Eco-design of Products and Processes, S.S. Muthu and M.A. Gardetti (eds.), Springer Science and Business Media, Singapore, 2016, p. 84, 85 .

The suffering for these animals doesn’t end at the border. Once on Bangladeshi soil, they’re crammed into trucks enroute to Dhaka14 AR Khan, ‘This Eid, be kind to your cow’, Dhaka Tribune, August 2017, viewed 14 December 2018, https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/2017/08/27/eid-kind-cow . Inside slaughterhouses and on the streets, cows have their legs tied before they’re slaughtered in front of other living cows15 J Duncan, ‘Leona Lewis exposes atrocities of Bangladeshi leather industry’s animal cruelty’, EcoSalon, December 2015, viewed 14 December 2018, http://ecosalon.com/leona-lewis-exposes-atrocities-of-bangladeshi-leather-industrys-animal-cruelty/
PETA, ‘Hell for Animals and Children for Leather in Bangladesh Exposed’, The Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman Family Foundation, 2015, viewed 21 December 2018, https://www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-leather-bangladesh.html
. Some are still kicking as they’re skinned for their hide16 J Duncan, ‘Leona Lewis exposes atrocities of Bangladeshi leather industry’s animal cruelty’, EcoSalon, December 2015, viewed 14 December 2018, http://ecosalon.com/leona-lewis-exposes-atrocities-of-bangladeshi-leather-industrys-animal-cruelty/ , to be turned into the leather we no longer associate with a living, breathing being. And how could we? It’s the dangerous and highly polluting chemical treatment at the tanneries in Hazaribagh that transforms leather from the raw hide, a substance which would naturally decay in a matter of days, into the  fashion item that sits still in our wardrobes for decades.

So what can we learn from the case of leather production? That the fashion industry’s impact on animals and people is connected along the journey from raw material to end user.

As demonstrated by the India-Bangladesh cattle trade, leather production is particularly problematic when it comes to traceability. It is by calling for greater transparency, that both human rights and animal welfare issues associated with leather production can be addressed.

By asking brands to recognise and address the animal welfare issues within their supply chains, we can have positive flow-on effects that will help create a more ethical and sustainable future for animals, workers, consumers and brands.

Written by Ranny Rustam
FOUR PAWS Australia Research Consultant

Images via Canva