If You Wouldn't Wear Fur, Why Wear Leather?

If You Wouldn't Wear Fur, Why Wear Leather?

As it turns out, fur and leather have a lot in common.

In recent years, fur has gone dramatically out of style. Major designer brands who utilized fur in the past have joined the movement to kick fur to the curb, such as Gucci, Michael Kors, DVF, and Prada.

Rosita Celentano PETA Protesting Fur

Above pictured Rosita Celentano with PETA for the elimination of fur from fashion: “This is what remains of your fur coat"

Although the fur industry claims that fur is an eco-friendly and natural way to stay warm by utilizing all parts of an animal, in reality, this is an inaccurate representation of fur's impact. The fur industry has a questionable future ahead, as it is being phased out in Northern European countries where it traditionally was produced, and many activist groups are calling for an end to fur farms internationally. 

Fur is not a natural nor environmentally-friendly product, as it utilizes toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process to keep fur from breaking down on the wearer's back. Raising animals for livestock or any other industrial purpose takes a huge toll on the environment, as it is animal agriculture that is the single most polluting industry in the world. Not to mention the inherent cruelty involved in killing an animal to wear their fur as a coat.

Upon giving some thought to the similarities and differences between fur and leather, I have realized that the two share many similar if not identical practices within their industries. The only differences I can think of are that the fur industry makes use of the hair of an animal and the leather industry makes use of the animal's hide and that different animals (minks and cows, respectively) are exploited. 

Fur and leather production are both awful for the planet. Both products come from the body of an animal killed in the name of food or fashion. Both are cruelty-ridden industries that make use of toxic substances to keep the materials from biodegrading, posing risks to the health of those who wear them.

While public sentiment, governments, and many world-renowned brands have largely turned against fur in fashion, leather, on the other hand, is still considered fashionable by many and even promoted by some sustainable-minded bloggers and companies. Some bloggers have even gone as far as to say that if you wear (so-called "ethical") leather, you should wear fur too because there is really no difference between the two! 

With this last part we can agree - there is no difference between wearing fur and leather. Either they are both okay to wear, or neither is okay to wear. It doesn't make sense that being such similar products, one is touted while the other shamed.

The truth is that neither fur nor leather is an environmentally-conscious fashion choice, and both lead to immense animal suffering as well as pollution. We imagine a future where humans live in harmony with nature and respect the rights of animals, and fur and leather embrace none of those things. But let's get into the article and let the facts speak for themselves.

What Leather and Fur Production Have In Common

1. Toxic chemicals used such as formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium

As pointed out by Sascha Camilli, writer of the book Vegan Style and PETA activist, "In order to keep from decomposing on the wearer's back, fur is often treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde and chromium, which are not only environmentally harmful, but also hazardous for human health." PETA has spoken out for years about the concerns of chemical contaminants in fur and leather, including damage to groundwater to air quality in areas where production takes place, not to mention the negative effects on humans exposed to these substances and the animals whose lives are sacrificed.

Formaldehyde and chromium are also two of the most prominent and toxic substances used to tan leather. We wrote an extensive article on how leather is made, highlighting the hazardous effects of exposure to chromium. And this is not just a slight exposure, we are talking about workers who are knee-deep in this slurry of toxic chemicals on a daily basis.

If you read what the fur industry in the United States has to say about the chemicals they use, they will claim to use a list of "natural" substances including table salt and corn starch, and then say "a small amount of formaldehyde may be used as well," with a disclaimer that they "ensure there are no harmful effluents."

I'm personally a lot more inclined to believe the research paper put out by the Humane Society of the United States outlining pages of clearly sourced scientific research detailing the chemicals that are used in fur production, rather than the aforementioned industry-funded website. The Humane Society writes, "common methods for 'dressing' fur skins involve formaldehyde and chromium-chemicals that are listed as carcinogens and are otherwise toxic to humans. Other chemicals that may be used or emitted in the dressing and dyeing processes and that appear on one or more US government lists of toxic chemicals include aluminum, ammonia, chlorine, chlorobenzene, copper, ethylene glycol, lead, methanol, naphthalene, sulfuric acid, toluene and zinc." 

Formaldehyde is no joke. Formaldehyde is an insidious chemical in many cosmetic products, and it is considered carcinogenic to humans. It is dangerous to be exposed to formaldehyde and many environmental consumer advocate groups are campaigning for its removal from personal care products. As the Humane Society's document lays out, formaldehyde is classified under Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for carcinogens, the EPA Toxics Reporting Industry List of Reportable Toxic Chemicals, and the California Proposition 65 Super List of chemicals known to cause cancer.

These toxic substances are not just a problem for the producers of leather and fur and the communities where these factories are located. Residues remain on the final product and the user is directly exposed to them as well. These chemicals have been found on fur and leather when tested, and have the potential to be transferred onto and absorbed into our skin when wearing or handling these products.

2. Animal captivity and inherent cruelty

"Origin Assured" or Cruelty Assured? 

I have heard some defend the use of fur by saying that fur is "origin assured" to denote where the fur pelts originally came from, so you can know that you are buying fur from producers who believe in animal welfare. However, investigative research carried out by PETA shows video evidence captured in Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and the US showing devastating conditions on mink farms (since this video's publication, many of these countries have banned or restricted fur farming). This footage shows that even mink farms that are considered "origin assured" and claim to value the health and well-being of their animals often overlook blatant animal health considerations. PETA documented how confined animals brutally injure others, or self-mutilate, and are left with untreated gaping wounds in their cages. Dead animals are left to rot, and the other animals sometimes resort to eating the body. Animals are brutally electrocuted to death. PETA clarifies that although there may be animal welfare laws in existence in the countries that are considered "origin assured" producers, there is not enough oversight to ensure that these laws are actually followed. "Origin assured," they explain, "is simply a fur industry marketing label, that doesn't have any real oversight by anyone outside of the fur industry."

It is unnatural for animals to be kept in tight confinement for their entire lives, in the sense that it goes against species-appropriate behavior, and often, these animals become diseased or aggressive due to being forced to remain 24 hours a day in tiny cages against their instinct. And even if the animals in certain circumstances are kept in pristine conditions and cared for and loved, or even allowed to roam free, in the case of some sheep and goats, in the end, they are still killed in the name of fashion. Even if they are "gassed" or killed in more so-called "humane" methods, it is still cruel to kill any sentient being to use them as a material commodity to feed our desire to "feel luxurious."

The three largest fur producing countries currently are Denmark, China, and the Netherlands. Denmark is undergoing a crisis in this industry as farmers do not know if fur farming will even be legal in the future in their country. Although Denmark does have animal welfare regulations that are some of the strictest in the world, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Dyrenes Beskyttelse), a Danish animal rights group, declined a continued collaboration with Kopenhagen Fur, as they did not believe the industry was willing to move forward in a direction that protected and cared for the animals involved in fur production to a far enough extent. According to an article entitled Mink on the Brink: The Troubles Facing Fur Farmers in DenmarkBirgitte Damm, who is the chief advisor of Dyrenes Beskyttelse, wrote in an email regarding this issue the following direct quote: “ [we] pushed for the current legislation as a first step, but the agreement was that this should be accompanied by further work towards alternative extensive housing and production methods with better animal welfare: work that Kopenhagen Fur turned out to be unwilling to do, and a goal they were unwilling to pursue. Therefore collaboration stopped. Dyrenes Beskyttelse does not think that the current legislation provides good animal welfare, far from it.” Their organization would like to see fur farming completely phased out in Denmark.

In the Netherlands, in fact, as of 2013, fur farming has been effectively banned. There was an 11-year grace period added to the law to allow current fur farmers time to transition away from fur.

This isn't the only place fur farming is banned. Breeding and killing animals for fur is banned in Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, Croatia, Norway, Japan, Slovenia, UK, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovakia, and importation and sales bans are active in many US cities and other countries such as Israel and India. Other countries have enacted partial bans or stricter regulations, such as France, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, New Zealand and Germany. It is plain to see that countries are recognizing that fur harvesting is a violation of animal rights, an environmental disaster, and that it is completely unnecessary. In 2021, many of the above countries banned fur farming due to coronavirus outbreaks on mink farms across Europe.

It appears that the only country where major fur production still continues unabated is in China, where ethical and environmental standards are notoriously lacking.

What animals do fur and leather come from?

Mink Image

Although some allege that anti-fur protesters are keen to protesting fur because it is made from "cute" and "fluffy" animals, I think quite the opposite is true. Most fur is made from mink, and most people have no idea what a mink even is, let alone what an intelligent and curious creature it is.

Some people who defend fur act as though minks are just inherently violent and vicious animals that serve no purpose. As most of us have probably never personally interacted with a mink, that might be easy enough to believe, especially if one wanted to keep wearing mink fur without any ethical qualms.

I highly recommend watching Joseph Carter the Mink Man's YouTube videos so you can see mink in action for yourself. They are not only beautiful animals, but they are so interesting to watch. It is wonderful to see their progression with Joseph as they learn to trust humans. In the same family as the weasel, otter, and ferret, they are semi-aquatic mammals native to North America (there is also a European mink, but it is the North American mink that is usually used for fur farming, even in Europe). They are skilled hunters, which Joseph often employs along with hunting dogs to eradicate rat infestations. Joseph has rescued all of his numerous mink from mink farms, which as he clarifies, are all in the business of making fur. These terrified animals come to his mink sanctuary where he allows them to roam outdoors, and they are soon able to be tamed like a dog or a cat. It's a far cry from the aggressive and vicious behavior that they demonstrate on fur farms. Being allowed to embrace their natural survival instinct (in a somewhat domesticated setting, not just being let out into the wild), these animals become relaxed and rather friendly, like a larger, wilder ferret. Although a mink is an intense, high-energy animal that would be quite a challenge to domesticate as pets for the general public, mink can grow to have a close bond with humans, especially if that bond is formed at a young age. After watching these videos, I have a newfound love and appreciation for mink as unique and special creatures, as well as an ally of mankind.

Just a thought - maybe instead of wearing mink in the mink coat capital of the USA, New Yorkers should consider opening mink training schools to teach people how to train mink to hunt rats, in order to deal with the city's long-term rat infestation. 

The same story holds true with cows that are killed for leather. Here, the majority of the world's leather production takes place in India and Bangladesh, where factories are known to use vast amounts of highly toxic chemicals that poison the workers and local waterways. These cows are brought from India into Bangladesh to be slaughtered, and endure hours and hours of abuse during torturous, unending travel, to ultimately be skinned, sometimes in front of each other. The cows are kept in confinement and unbearable living conditions throughout their lives, just like the animals who eventually are turned into fur coats. 

This is a discussion about the rights of ALL animals, including cows, minks, rabbits, lambs, goats - it doesn't really matter - and treating them as sentient beings that deserve to live. Animals are living beings with a brain, a heart, and a central nervous system who do not want to die, and therefore should not be killed by our hand simply to satisfy our shallow tastes in fashion. All sentient beings have the right to live. An animal is not a material product created for humans to exploit for its skin, meat, fur, or anything else. 

The point is quite simple - if you care about all animals and do not want to contribute to industries built upon the suffering and slaughtering of animals in the name of fashion, it's time to rethink wearing leather or fur. 

3. Heavy carbon footprint and heavy greenwashing

Fur and leather both have a heavy carbon footprint. This is due to the animal manure and carcass waste produced by these industries, along with chemical pollution. Although synthetic alternatives are far from the solution, as they are made from fossil fuels, they still rank lower in terms of overall environmental impact. Fur isn't listed in the diagram below, but leather takes the top place for the most environmental impact of any of the compared materials in this chart.

The fur and leather industries both like to claim that fur and leather are natural, or only a by-product of the meat industry putting to use what would otherwise be waste. They both like to say that they are a more environmentally friendly option than synthetics and that they are biodegradable. But the argument from the industry doesn't hold up against the data. We hold our ground and say that all fur and leather industry claims of ethics are pure greenwashing. Fur and leather are both industries that do not rely on the "waste" of the meat industry, but kill animals specifically for fashion. Their products are loaded with toxins that prevent biodegradability and pollute the soil if composted. Both are destructive, dirty industries that put profit over everything else, with no regard for who or what falls in their wake.

Higgs Material Impact Cradle to Gate
Source: Higgs Materials Sustainability Index

Looking Forward

In conclusion, if you care about animals and the environment, I recommend staying away from fur and leather.

The time is now to say goodbye to fur and leather in fashion. Leather and fur production are both inherently cruel to animals and are detrimental to the environment and human health. It's time to look to the future of fashion. And if you ask me, the future is plant-based.

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