Leather is not a byproduct of the meat industry. It’s a co-product. When I was a vegetarian I wore leather shoes, jackets, belts and bags. I thought leather was a byproduct that would be wasted if no one turned it into things I could wear.
Then I learned that the profit margins on meat are relatively small and that leather brings in a lot of money. Half the value of the animal! So by buying leather, I was supporting the meat industry.
That’s when I switched to buying only second-hand leather. But I’ve stopped that too. I’m grossed out now at the idea of wearing someone else’s skin. It’s a little too Hannibal for me. I also realize that I’m promoting leather when I wear it. Others might not know I bought that jacket used and go out and buy a brand new one.
I still have a few pair of leather shoes and I’m in the process of selling them. With the money I made selling my other leather shoes and jackets I bought a few awesome pair of leather-free shoes. My favorite so far are the Novacas booties. They’re an all vegan company that focuses on workers’ conditions, ethically sources materials, and environmentally friendly business practices.
Which brings me to the other problem with leather: It’s not green.
The reason leather shoes don’t rot away like roadkill is because of chemicals. Leather is tanned with an acidic chemical compound that preserves it. Leather is soaked in biocides and fungicides to prevent mold, and it’s treated with nasty concoctions like sodium sulfide to remove the hair. Even chemicals like arsenic and formaldehyde are used.
In places where leather production is prevalent (such as India and China), water and air pollution is high. Workers (and nearby residents) also face high instances of cancer from all the chemicals.
Finally, not all leather is a co-product. Kangaroos in the outback are shot for their skin. Exotic animals are turned into leather goods too–and they’re terribly mistreated in the process. Snakes are often nailed to trees and skinned alive. Lizards are clubbed to death, and alligators are crowded in filthy pens on farms killed when they are big enough to be marketable.
Fortunately, there are lots of cruelty-free leather alternatives out there. Sure, some are made from petrochemicals, but I doubt they’re worse than the environmental impact of leather. Some are made with good environmental practices in mind and use green (and even recycled) materials. My resources page is a good place to start looking.