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On “Byproducts” of Animal Exploitation

Chris sent an interesting video that demonstrates the connections between/among various industries that exist to exploit sentient nonhumans. It’s not graphic the way you’re used to seeing graphic, and it’s actually used for promotional purposes and is available on the Fur Commission‘s site.

This video reminds me of when people excuse their leather shoes by saying they’re a byproduct of the cattle industry and that they’re environmentally friendly because, thanks to the demand for leather goods, there is less waste. I like the Guardian’s “Don’t Hide From the Truth,” which among other things states:

Take ostrich, for example – in South Africa, ostrich farms are a developing industry. But there, the conventional picture is reversed: the skins account for some 80% of the slaughtered bird’s value, and it is the meat that is sold as a byproduct. Again, if the bird’s death doesn’t bother you there’s no moral problem, but don’t kid yourself that the leather would have gone to waste if someone didn’t buy it.

Another oddity is that demand is rising for organic or free-range meats, as an increasing number (though still a tiny minority) of people try to source their food as ethically as possible. Yet many of these same people will happily buy cheap leather. This makes no sense: if you won’t tuck into a steak that came from a miserable animal, why buy its skin? Given much of the leather we use comes from countries where animal welfare is firmly at the bottom of the list of priorities, don’t imagine your handbag previously led a happy life.

The softest, most luxurious leather comes from the skin of newborn or even unborn calves, cut prematurely out of their mother’s wombs. Sometimes it will be from the same veal calves whose lives of misery are well documented. Many committed carnivores draw the line at veal: why then wear calfskin?

Then there’s the Clothing Information Sheet, which I really must send to a friend in NYC who this weekend told me she’s been eating better and paying closer attention to her purchasing decisions. “See, this sweater? It’s not wool–it’s cashmere. That’s good right?” I love her intentions. She just needs a bit more education.

When I first read the following on the Information Sheet I was a bit peeved: “Finding alternatives to leather is not quite as easy as finding alternative vegetarian foods, but we should certainly do what we can.” But I know that in my own life (as I’ve written previously), and particularly when it comes to dress shoes for me and also for my husband, shoes have been a bit of a headache. Not a huge problem, but definitely not as accessible as vegan food. We just returned from NYC where we both found what we needed at Mooshoes (the Elizabeth for me and I believe the 3-eyed brown gibson for him), however the shoes purchased were not the ones we were looking at online and we probably also would have ordered the wrong sizes.

Does that make it difficult to be a vegan? More like inconvenient at times, depending on your lifestyle. But certainly not a crisis.

But back to the video and arguments like it: I assume most regular readers don’t agree with the byproduct argument/excuse/rationale. But what do you say to people who give it to you? And what about recycled leather products, such as Ashley Watson‘s? Where do you stand on that?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Honestly, I rarely hear it. I get the feeling it's a myth that has spread around a small segment of people who think they're socially responsible, but it's not widespread.

    February 2, 2009
  2. Laura K #

    I had a co-worker recently give me that exact line…. that as long as she is a meat-eater she feels she should be wearing leather because she wouldn't want any of the animal to "go to waste". I then told her about the Indian leather industry, relating some of the more graphic scenes from the film Earthlings, and pointed out that generally the animals are killed only for their skin and not to be eaten.

    February 3, 2009
  3. I was thinking about that very issue today–recycling leather, I mean. I've been vegan for about five years now so I certainly haven't bought any new leather, and I actually was never a fan of leather to begin with, so I didn't have much in the first place.

    Today though, I was at a thrift store looking at shoes, and a very cute pair of shoes caught my eye…but the lining appeared to be leather. I thought, "Well, no one would SEE the lining, so I wouldn't be promoting leather, and it is a used shoe, so the damage has already been done…" But I just couldn't get comfortable with it, so I ended up leaving them there. The idea of wearing skin is just too creepy for me, though I guess from an ethical standpoint I can't fault anybody for using thrift store leather…though naturally you don't want to appear as if you support the leather industry. (This, of course, would be the issue with people who only wear "vintage" furs.)

    By the way, thank you for your comment on our Liberation BC blog. I've been reading Animal Person for a couple of years now so it was nice to see your name!

    February 3, 2009
  4. I try directing people to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's podcast of 5/27/08 "Leather Not an Innocent By Product"

    In her podcast she says that globally, 46 billion dollars comes from leather. Which represents close to 70% of the meat industry's by-product revenue. There is little doubt, that if the leather industry failed, the meat industry would suffer as well.

    About non-vegans justifying leather as "using the whole animal" that they eat… So much of the leather is made from goats and horses too (cordovan leather) – I'd ask if they eat these animals as well? Or do they eat veal? – as in calf skin? Or do they eat cow fetuses as in "slunk" skins?

    And Laura – that's an excellent point about Indian leather, and Colleen elaborates more on their horrible deaths. I don't know that I've ever heard anything so brutal. I wonder next will they will try to sell "happy leather" for those whose conscience is offended by "Indian leather". "Humanely raised skin" – no, I'm sure that wouldn't work.

    Anyway, there are also dozens of environmental hazards caused by leather processing – It's a very nasty, toxic, dangerous industry – leaving whole areas contaminated, poisoned and unusable for decades.

    About recycled leather – When I was a vegetarian I had 8 or so yards of "re-claimed leather"… I worked hard stripping it from a couch I purchased at a yard sale. I was a human "hide puller" so to speak. In all that effort – it never connected in my unaware head: "organ of an animal". But when it did… I couldn't get it in the trash quick enough. No matter how "chic", "vintage", recycled or salvaged it is… it's origin is born of evil and misery, and I don't find leather appealing at all.

    Finding shoes is the worst. Yes it does make being vegan a bit more challenging. But I agree Mary… it's certainly not a crisis.

    February 4, 2009

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