Can Leather Ever Be Ethical?

Is leather the by-product of a slaughter, or the cause of it? Examining the impact of the heritage boot industry on cowhide demand.

Whether you are vegetarian, vegan, or carnivore, you may have at one point asked yourself, “is wearing a cow’s skin ethical?” For the average meat-eater, it’s probably an easy “yes,” and we probably assumed that the animal provided us with both the boots and a meal.

But is that true? And are additional animals killed to provide more leather? Here, we’re taking a look at what the term “ethical leather” really does — and should — mean. 

horween leather
Hides hanging in Horween Leather Company

Cows: The Original Cash Cow

Leather demand has steadily increased over the last 15 years, with a further 6% increase expected over the next 5 years, according to Mordor Intelligence. At the same time, meat prices have stayed the same or dropped. Americans are now eating more meat than ever, 222 lbs per person per year, according to The Seattle Times in 2018. 

And the meat industry has always provided plenty of cow hides. According to Hermann and Oak, only about 30% of slaughtered cattle have their hides tanned — and only 1% are actually used to make leather goods. 

Only about 30% of slaughtered cattle have their hides tanned — and only 1% are actually used to make leather goods. 

But cattle sent to slaughter provide more than just meat and hide. Intestines are used for sausage casing, blood in fertilizer, gelatin for medication capsules, fat for soap and cooking. The cattle farmers and slaughterhouses try to get value from every part of the cow.

[Related: Calfskin vs Cow – Which Is Best for Your Boots?]

urban shepherd boots leather
Natural calfskin on Urban Shepherd’s Original

Economics: The Cow-culations 

The value of leather is not from the material itself, but from the selection process and quality sorting. It is often not possible to know the grade of a hide prior to its slaughter. Most hides are sold in bulk to then be evaluated, but most are rejected (often turned into dog food), and the acceptable ones are sorted by grade. AA is the highest, then A, and finally B. The lower the grade the more “character” the leather will display. Cattle farmers and slaughterhouses are only able to salvage very little economic value from the raw, ungraded hides because before the grade is determined, the value is unknown.

There are exceptions though. If extra special attention is paid to keep insects away, branding is discreet, and the animal is slaughtered optimally, then farmers could expect to earn more for their hides. The farmers and slaughterhouses in this example have moved the value gained by sorting under their control and so they can earn more per hide. A good example of where this is possible is with Kobe beef, where the cows are kept from blemish hazards such as barbed fences, insects, and injuries from other animals.

The meat industry largely does not profit from the leather industry, so leather demand does not increase the number of cows slaughtered.

The takeaway: the meat industry largely does not profit from the leather industry, so leather demand does not increase the number of cows slaughtered. The raw material of unsorted hides is not of much value until evaluated and sorted by quality, thickness, and size. 

The exception here being if the farmer knows with a greater degree of certainty that the hides are mostly free of blemishes, as is the case with Kobe beef. The farmer can then charge more for the cow.

taft dragon boot close
CF Stead’s Waxy Commander leather on the Taft Dragon

The Udder Side of the Argument

Animal rights groups make the argument that purchasing leather goods does increase the number of animals slaughtered. Here is their argument. 

The hide is a co-product with the meat, not a by-product. Both the meat and hide are profitable.

Farmers and slaughterhouses are able to make a profit from both the meat and hide. Without the incremental profit from the hide, the animal would yield less of a profit. The profits of the industry encourage more suppliers and prices for meat and hides decrease. With this decreased price of both meat and hides, more people are able to afford these products. This causes a higher demand for both and so more animals are slaughtered.

This argument relies on their assumption that an animal’s hide accounts for 7.5%-10% of the animal’s worth. This can be true, if we know that the animal will yield a blemish-free hide. But we often cannot know for certain, so farmers often do not get that much for their hides. And in the meat industry, often little care is taken to preserve the animal’s hide quality due to the cost of preventing blemishes.

The Industry’s Stance

So how do tanneries tackle the question of how ethical their leather is?

Hermann Oak

This veg-tan only tannery the most information — of the major American leather brands — on their website and YouTube channel. The statement below is found on their website. (Emphasis ours.)

“Our Heavy Native Steer hides come from the major U.S. beef packing houses, where the cattle are processed under strict USDA supervision in the most humane way possible.  While we respect the views of those opposed to the harvesting of animals for food, the current state of humanity includes protein in its diet.  The hide taken from the cattle is the wrapper, an item that has no value if not processed into leather.  Like a shipping box, it would be sent to the landfill if not for the tanning industry converting the hide into one of the mankind’s oldest and most widely used fabrics.  Since the hide accounts for only 5% of the value of the steer, it has essentially no effect on the number of cattle raised for beef.  The price of hides has both doubled and halved over the years, with no change in the number of cattle grown or the supply of hides.  This is why hides are termed a byproduct of the meat industry.”

In the YouTube video above explaining their tanning process, the company explains how the hides are selected. They state that about 30% of cattle that are raised for food have their hides made into leather. The hides are removed at the packing plant and sort for gender, weight, and branding. Hermann Oak use only heavier, non-branded male steer hides. 

[Related: The 7 Best Tanneries On Earth]

timberland subway steps
Check out our Timberland Premium Waterproof boot review

Timberland

“At Timberland, we source the majority of our hides from U.S. cattle that are raised for food and processed according to USDA guidelines. Additionally, we have banned the sourcing of hides from certain countries or regions where we have learned of animal husbandry concerns.” 

Does Buying Leather Cause More Animals to Be Slaughtered?

No, but maybe…

The vast majority of cows in the meat industry have hides of unknown value so the farmers and slaughterhouses do not gain much value from their hide. But specialty farming practices, like Kobe beef, do see greater profits from cow hide. It is not a straightforward answer because the meat and leather industries are complex, international markets — but if animal rights are a priority for you, there may be ways to wear ethically sourced leather.

What I Suggest If You Are Socially Conscious

Here are a few brands that make a point of “ethically” sourcing their hides.

handmade barceona fuji winter boot

Handmade Barcelona – Fuji Winter Boots

Great winter boots made with leather that is humanely sourced (humane slaughter practices), 100% handmade, and chrome and toxin free (environmental hazards). 

[Shop the Fuji Leather Winter Boots]

green shoe dartmoor boot
Green Shoes’ Dartmoor boot

Green Shoes

The leather they use only comes as a product of the meat industry, some speciality leathers can come from non-meat sources, and most materials are locally sourced in the UK. Green shoes is a 4 person shop and they have vegan leather options too!

[Shop Green Shoes]

nisolo andres boot curb
See our Nisolo review

Nisolo

Nisolo prides themselves on providing a living wage for employees at every step of their Mexican manufacturing. They have even gone through the thorough, strenuous process to be labeled a B Corp.

[Shop Nisolo here, and see our review here]

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, no matter where you get your next pair of heritage boots, you don’t have to worry about additional cows being slaughtered because of your leather demand. The meat industry provides way more hides than needed and the value of the hide does not make a consistent enough difference in profit for more cows to be slaughtered.

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Daniel Pati

Dan is a former U.S. Army Captain studying his Master’s in Business Administration at Cornell University. He has spent a huge amount of time on his feet—as a NCAA runner, a military officer, and now as a student walking across Cornell’s huge, snowy campus. So he definitely values having quality footwear and needs to be able to trust it in any situation.

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