While more people are switching animal products out of their diet, many do not think about the other products they purchase and how they are made. They happily purchase leather jackets, boots, and sofas or cosy woolen jumpers and feather duvets. Together, we need to change this for the animals, the planet, and our health. Animals around the world are being killed for their fur, skin, hair, and feathers. Let’s take a look at how each of these materials are produced, and the impacts they have on the animals, environment, and people.
Every year, over 100 million minks, foxes, raccoon dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and chinchillas are bred and killed on intensive farms for their fur. This excludes the additional wild animals, such as coyotes and harp or hooded seals, who are hunted for their skin, which equates to over 3 million individuals in North America alone . Other less common animals are squirrels, skunks, otters, leopards, lynx, wolves and beavers .
Australia has no fur farms, meaning all fur used and sold is imported from Canada, the USA, Europe, China, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines . This also means that the animals are not covered by Australian animal welfare standards and are subjected to a range of terrible conditions and practices. In saying this, some fur sold can come from wild animals who are caught and killed in Australia, such as rabbits, foxes, and kangaroos, however, the market is relatively small. Farmed fur makes up 85% of the fur trade .
Fur is marketed as a high-end product, used in expensive labels such as Balenciaga, Chloe, Dior, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang – to name a few . It is predominately used in outerwear for entire coats or as trims and even on shoes. More recently, mink has wiggled it’s way into cosmetics and is used for false eyelashes.
The animals who are killed for their skin are subjected to some of the most horrific practices.
Animals on fur farms are kept in elevated rows of barren wire cages, usually with multiple animals in a single cage . These cages often offer no protection or hiding spaces, completely disregarding the species’ natural behaviour to hide.
An undercover investigation by PETA, on Chinese fur farms, found that some cats and dogs had collars on, suggesting they were once beloved family companions who had been stolen .
Many fur farms use artificial insemination to cross-breed animals . This means males are forced to ejaculate so a worker can collect their sperm, and females are held in place so that they can be impregnated.
Animals on fur farms are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours and as a result display stereotypic behaviours, severe fearfulness, and learned helplessness (unresponsive, extreme inactivity), and even self-mutilation [6, 8].
Wild animals, who make up 15% of the fur trade, are typically caught in steel-jaw traps, snares, or cages. Hunters do not check these traps daily, leaving the animals in excruciating pain, suffering from dehydration and hunger. When the hunter does check the traps, the animals are callously shot, strangled, beaten, or stomped to death, to avoid “damaging” their fur and thus increasing the profit . Animals caught in leg-hold traps have been noted to chew off their paws to escape and can suffer a slower death. One major issue is that countless non-target species can become accidentally trapped and die or are killed during the process .
Across Canada and Europe, animals who are farmed for their fur are rendered unconscious in gas chambers. This method uses carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide which is commonly channelled from the exhaust of a truck into a box containing the animals. Unfortunately, many animals remain conscious or regain consciousness while they are being skinned . This is an especially prolonged and painful for minks who are diving animals and can hold their breath for a long time .
An undercover investigation on a Spanish mink farm by Animal Equality showed workers throwing the minks into a gassing box and all you can hear is their heartbreaking screams .
Some farms prefer to twist the smaller animal’s neck until it breaks, due to a theory that gassing can discolour their fur .
Larger animals, such as foxes, are killed by having an electric probe inserted into their mouths, anuses, and genital areas to trigger cardiac fibrillation. Research has shown that these animals remain conscious for 30 seconds during which they are forced to suffer a heart attack .
Both farmed and wild animals are subjected to bludgeoning. Animals on farms are captured by a pole with a clamp or noose which is placed around their necks, the workers often hold them suspended off the ground, before using a metal or wooden stick to repeatedly strike their heads. Alternatively, the worker may swing them head-first into the ground. Both are an attempt to stun the animal, however, many remain immobile but full conscious .
In Canada and Greenland, harp and hooded seal pups are killed at just 3 months of age. Those who participate in the hunt use wood clubs, large ice-picks, or guns to stun the animals. Guns are less common, as processing plants deduct a fee for bullet wounds . A report conducted by veterinarians found that 42% of cases they studied showed there was not enough evidence of cranial injury to guarantee the animal was unconscious at the time of skinning [12, 13].
After they have been gassed, electrocuted, or bludgeoned the animals are then skinned – often while fully conscious. The animal is placed on their back or hung upside down by hooks on their legs, and a knife slices them open. Workers then pull the skin off of the animals’ body starting with their hind legs, all the way over their head .
Undercover investigators on Chinese farms observed a significant number of animals that were fully conscious during and after skinning, and they were writhing and moving after. Workers were also seen using the handle of the knife to repeatedly beat their heads until they were motionless again. Animals were noted to be breathing, have heartbeats, direction body and eyelid movements for up to 5-10 minutes after skinning .
From a consumers perspective, it can be incredibly difficult to tell if a product is faux fur, as real fur being sold as faux. Due to the number of animals being killed in China, it is actually cheaper for them to sell real fur as faux to producers . Additionally, the globalisation of the fur industry has made it almost impossible for consumers to know where the products we are buying come from. Even if a clothing item is labelled as being made in Europe, it is very possible that the fur has come from a Chinese fur farm. On top of it all, there are no penalties for people who abuse animals on fur farms in China, the world’s largest fur exporter .
Leather and Suede
Leather is one of the most common and accepted products in today’s society, as it is glamorised and associated with luxury and quality. Just like fur, leather is the skin of an animal – in this instance, a cow, calf, buffalo, pig, goat, sheep, crocodile, lizard, snake, stingray, emu, deer, fish, kangaroo, horse, or even elephant, cat, and dog – that has undergone a range of intense chemical processes to turn it into a sturdy material.
Animals used for leather and suede are killed in Australia, but skins and products are also imported from other countries, such as China and India. Although some of the skin used is a by-product of the meat industry, it also stands as a separate industry responsible for the slaughter of billions of animals annually.
The demand for leather comes in all shapes and sizes, from clothing items such as jackets, belts, and shoes to accessories like handbags, watchbands, phone cases, and wallets to household items like sofas, and the upholstery of cars – it surrounds us all and is often unavoidable.
Cows, calves, buffalo, sheep, goats, pigs, alligators, crocodiles, ostriches, emus, snakes, horses, dogs and cats are commonly farmed for their skin. Each species has different standards in terms of space allowance and welfare issues. Overall, every species is denied their natural behaviours in some way.
A PETA investigation conducted in Texas and Zimbabwe found that alligators and crocodiles are forced to live in concrete pits with dirty pools of water, where they can barely move . The same was documented in Vietnam . Farms can have up to 100,000 alligators or crocodiles living on top of each other in total confinement . Like all animals, crocodiles and alligators suffer from injuries, severe stress, and insanity due to the unnatural living conditions. There are 13 crocodile farms across Northern Australia, accounting for 60% of the global trade in crocodile skins. While our standards state the animals must be given clean water, they are still forced to live in unnaturally confined conditions .
Wild animals, such kangaroos, stingray, sharks, deer, fish, and elephants are not farmed for their skins, but can be caught, trapped, and killed – in many cases, illegally . Hunted animals are subjected to prolonged suffering if caught and left for days, or inexperienced hunters with poor aim, meaning they can be left severely wounded suffering a prolonged, painful death, or are shot several times.
Farmed animals commonly endure the additional stress of transportation – again, the time spent travelling varies for each country. In Australia, some animals can be on transport trucks for 36 hours straight .
While the slaughter of a cow is forbidden in many areas of India, their industry still accounts for around 12.9% of the global production .
A PETA investigation revealed that cows are forced to travel thousands of kilometres to areas where they can be killed. A hole is punctured into their noses and a rope is passed through, allowing the workers to control the herd. As they march to their death, most cattle collapse from hunger, exhaustion, injury, and desperation. Handlers have been noted to break the cow’s tails to force them to comply. Others rub chilli, salt, and tobacco into their eyes to keep them awake and moving .
All animals used for their skin are prematurely killed. Some dairy cows and ewes are killed while pregnant, as the leather produced by the unborn calf or lamb – known as slink or slunk leather. It is considered “softer” and can be deemed a higher quality [24, 25]. Alligators and crocodiles who can live for 60 years are killed before between 1-3 years old ; and pigs are killed at 6-months old .
Like on fur farms, animals across the globe are commonly rendered unconscious by being electrically or mechanically stunned, beaten with mallets, axes, or poles, having their throats slit and are left to bleed out, or are gassing. Disturbingly, snakes are commonly nailed to trees and skinned alive from one end to the other .
As with fur, there are currently no requirements to label the species of a leather product, making it extremely difficult and most often impossible, to decipher what country the leather came from and which species it has come from. Ultimately, all leather and suede come from tortured and abused animals.
Wool and Cashmere
Certain breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, musk oxen, and camels are used to produce different types of wool and cashmere. The different species create different variations in “quality” and thus have different demands . For this article, we will focus on the three most common, sheep, goats, and rabbits.
The wool and meat industry are deeply entangled, with farmers using the sheep to breed for lamb production, while also selling older sheep as mutton. Many countries farm animals for wool and cashmere products, however, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Mongolia are the largest. Since 1991, Australia’s sheep numbers have declined from 180.9 million to 67.1 million sheep shorn in 2019-2020 . Approximately 90% of the world’s cashmere comes from China and Mongolia . Australia does not have any Angora rabbit farms, and all angora wool is imported from China (90%), South America, and Europe .
Consumer demand for wool and cashmere comes in the form of clothing, blankets, horse rugs, saddle cloths, carpeting, insulation, and upholstery. Wool felt is also used for covering piano hammers, to absorb odors and noise in heavy machinery, stereo speakers, in toys, and arts and crafts.
Sheep Skin and Wool
Sheep who are used for their skin and wool are subjected to a range of welfare issues. Sheepskin, like leather and fur, comes from the sheep once they have been killed.
Sheep naturally produce just enough wool to survive the winter weathers. In their natural state, they would shed it for the summer months – meaning they do not need humans to remove it. Through selective breeding, humans have altered wild sheep to create the domestic Merino breed who produces more wool, while simultaneously removing their ability to naturally shed. Merino sheep have extra skin which increases the surface area and thus more wool .
Mulesing, Mutilations, and Castration
Sheep are non-native to Australia, and they are not naturally suited to the hot Australian climate – especially the Merino breed who are prone to flystrike. Flystrike is when flies lay eggs on soiled wool or open wounds, and maggots feed off of the sheep’s flesh. To combat this, farmers conduct mulesing on lambs, which involves cutting off their tail to reduce the chance of soiling, often without pain relief . Despite what the industry claims, mulesing has proven to cause pain and suffering in the lambs [35, 36].
The lambs also have their ears punched so that a tag can be inserted. Males are also castrated with either a knife to their testicles or a rubber ring attached around their scrotum to cut off blood supply until the testicles drop off . All of these mutilations can be done without using pain killers and are common practice in the global wool industry .
Australian sheep undergo over 50 million operations a year that would constitute cruelty if performed on dogs or cats . Farming them has extremely high rates of mortality, which are considered “normal”: “20-40% of lambs die at birth or before the age of eight weeks from cold or starvation; eight million mature sheep die every year from disease, lack of shelter, and neglect. One million of these die within 30 days of shearing” .
There is a common misconception that sheep are not harmed in the process of shearing. While domestic sheep do need to be sheared, the commercial process causes suffering. Workers are paid on the volume of sheep they shear, rather than by the hour. As a result, they attempt to shear as quickly as possible, to increase the number of sheep, resulting in rough handling, an increase in cuts and mutilations, and aggression towards the animals.
Multiple undercover PETA investigations have exposed the cruelty involved with shearing sheep. Undercover footage from Australian shearing sheds shows sheep being kicked, punched, stepped on, and mutilated by the shearers. Some footage revealed sheep were being stitched up without pain relief .
Slaughter and Live Export
Sheep can live for 10-12 years, with some even reaching 20 years! The wool industry, however, considers them to be no longer profitable after just 5-6 years and they are sent to slaughter. Alternatively, they are exported. Every year, over 1.1 million sheep are forced onto live-export ships and sent to slaughterhouses overseas. This distressing journey can take three to five weeks, and once the animals leave they are not protected by Australian law .
Goats used for Cashmere
The shearing process is extremely stressful for the goats as it robs them of their natural insulation, leaving them vulnerable to cold temperatures and serious illnesses. The goats who are used for cashmere, mohair, and Pashmina are shorn in the middle of winter, during a time when they need their coats most because they would naturally shed their coat as temperatures begin to rise . As a result, many animals die from the cold. In all countries, once the goats are no longer of use, they are sent to slaughter as “cheap” meat.
A PETA Asia investigation into the cashmere industry in China and Mongolia, revealed the extreme cruelty to the cashmere goats when being slaughtered. The video exposé shows goats screaming in immense pain and fear as the workers tear their hair out using sharp metal combs, stepped on them, and twisted their limbs. Their throats were then slit at slaughterhouses before they were left to die agony .
The “high-class” nature of the fabric means that any faults in a goat’s fleece mean the goat is deemed useless to the cashmere industry and will be slaughtered for cheap meat. In fact, farmers are advised to expect to cull at least half of their goats due to fleece defects .
Angora rabbits are typically kept inside small, filthy, barren, wire cages, unable to exhibit any of their natural behaviours. Like animals on fur farms, they develop stereotypic behaviours .
Angora rabbits are known to have their fur brutally ripped out from their skin when they are still alive. Their bloodied bodies are then put back into the cages where they will stay until their fur grows back. Then they will undergo the same horrifying ordeal again.
A PETA exposé on Chinese farms showed that rabbits are plucked while fully conscious and alive, as their bodies can be abused for two to three years before they are killed . Angora rabbits in other countries are also not safe from this. An investigation by One Voice on French farms, also found that rabbits were tied to the table as fur was ripped from their skins .
Across the globe, geese, ducks, ostriches, emus, turkeys, and chicken feathers are exploited for their feathers.
Whilst companies claim that down is a by-product of the meat industry, this is only partly true. All of the feathers produced in Australia come from the meat industry. The world’s largest producer of down, however, is China, accounting for 80% of global production, most of which comes from birds who have been plucked while they are still alive [48, 49].
Feathers are used in jackets, costumes, pillows, duvets, accessories, toys, decorations, and cleaning products. The most common form is down, the soft, fluffy, undercoating that ducks and geese have to keep warm. Ostrich and emu feathers are more commonly used in decorations and cleaning products.
As mentioned earlier, every country has different standards for farmed animals, all treating animals as nothing but production objects.
In Australia, turkeys, chickens, and ducks are legally farmed inside crowded sheds, without access to open water, and can undergo painful beak trimming. When their bodies reach their slaughter weight, they are transported to the slaughterhouse and have their throats slit after being stunned. They are then placed in a de-feathering tank and their feathers are collected and sold .
While illegal in Australia, ducks, geese, emus, and ostriches are subjected to live-plucking multiple times in their lives. This is incredibly painful for the animals as each feather is ripped from the follicle where there are pain receptive nerves, leaving their bodies a bloody mess. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds become traumatized and paralyzed with fear. Some die as a result of the monstrous procedure. Geese can have this done up to six times a year, before being slaughtered .
An undercover investigation in China by PETA, shows employees ripping fistfuls of feathers from the shrieking ducks and geese. Their bodies are often left with bloody wounds . A similar investigation by PETA in South Africa also showed ostriches having some of their feathers ripped out while they were alive .
Once the animal’s feather production slows or they reach their slaughter weight, they are killed.
Fur, leather, wool, cashmere, and feathers are often presented as a more environmentally friendly option in comparison to faux items – but is this really true?
In addition to causing the suffering and death of billions of animals every single year, the production of these materials contributes to the destruction of land, resource use, waste production and pollution, chemical pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. Despite what we consumers are made to believe, there is nothing “natural” about clothing made from an animal’s skin, fur or feathers.
Resources, Land Clearing, and Biodiversity Loss
Animals used for all types of materials require immense quantities of land, food, water, and energy. When looking at resources used to raise the animals, we also have to look at the resources used to grow, transport, and process their food. Animal agriculture (and their feed) is utilising 50% of habitable land. In comparison, urban and built-up land makes up just 1% ! Land clearing and grazing animals (predominantly cows, sheep, and goats), leads to soil compaction, increases soil salinity and erosion, and causes a decrease in biodiversity . For most animals, water is also used during the slaughter process and additionally for the processing of their skins, fur, wool, and feathers.
A study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Snow Leopard Trust revealed a worrying link between the cashmere trade and the decay of ecosystems that are home to some of the planet’s most spectacular large mammals. The study found that “as pastoralists expand goat herds to increase profits for the cashmere trade in Western markets, wildlife icons from the Tibetan Plateau to Mongolia suffer—including endangered snow leopard, wild yak, chiru, saiga, Bactrian camel, gazelles, and other remarkable but already endangered species of remote Central Asia,” . This can have disastrous impacts on natural ecosystems and has the ability to destroy our environment by altering the food web forever.
Cashmere goats must consume 10% of their body weight in food every day and they eat the roots of grasses. This works to prevent regrowth and makes the industry a significant contributor to soil degradation and desertification. Already, 65% of Mongolia’s grasslands are degraded and 90 per cent of the country is in extreme danger of desertification .
The Chicago Tribune has reported that China is raising so many goats for the cashmere industry that they have grazed “Chinese grasslands down to a moonscape, unleashing some of the worst dust storms on record. This, in turn, fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach the skies over North America” .
Killing Wild Animals
Farmed animals often need to be protected against wild animals, which ultimately involves killing them. The Australian government permits the slaughter of kangaroos and dingoes as they are considered a pest to the sheep farmers (more to come on this issue soon) [59, 60]. In the US, coyotes are also murdered in the millions every year by ranchers as they are considered a threat to the sheep. Hundreds of thousands of coyotes are poisoned, shot and burned alive every year by ranchers and the U.S. government .
Waste, Pollution, and Chemical Use
In addition to being resource-intensive, any form of animal farming is responsible for waste production and pollution. Waste comes in the form of animal manure, dropped food, lost fur and feathers, as well as unused body parts after processing [62, 63]. We also have to factor in the production of their food, transportation, electricity for housing, slaughter facilities, and waste from the slaughter process. Farming animals and their feed also requires the use of pesticides, vaccines, and antibiotics, which pollute the environment and can create antibiotic-resistant disease . Material items also have the added issue of chemical use during the processing phase, and thus contributes to chemical pollution. This is because after an animal has been slaughtered, his or her skin must be treated with toxic chemicals to prevent it from rotting and decomposing .
To preserve and dye the fur, harmful synthetic chemicals like ammonia, formaldehyde, and hydrogen peroxide are used . The use of these chemicals leads to dangerously high levels of water contamination and also results in the products being non-biodegradable. The hazardous process of fur dressing is so problematic that the World Bank has ranked the fur industry as one of the world’s five worst industries for toxic metal pollution .
The tannery industry is listed as the most polluting activity due to the wide type of chemicals applied during the conversion of animal skins into leather . Every year, over 4 million tonnes of solid waste is generated by the global leather industry. The leather tanning stage involves soaking the animal skin in a liquid containing tannic acid and other chemicals, to permanently alter the protein structure of the skin, preventing it from breaking down. Approximately 90% of these factories use chromium, which is extremely harmful to the environment. Other chemicals include chlorine, cadmium, nickel, zinc, lead, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, mineral salts, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of which are cyanide-based. Cyanide is an extremely toxic chemical that can actually cause death [65, 68]. A study found that 500 kg of rawhide only produces 75kg of leather, and the rest is considered waste. As this waste breaks down, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere . One common issue is that people claim leather is natural and biodegradable or eco-friendly, however, the tanning process actually stops the leather from biodegrading by stabilizing the collagen or protein fibres.
Additionally, most tannery operations have been moved to developing nations, where there are extremely poor environmental protection standards. As a result, the toxic waste water is commonly dumped into rivers and lakes that are used by the locals. This pollution not only rids lakes and rivers of all natural life, but also poses serious health risks to any human or animal that comes into contact with them.
Kanpur has become one of the most valued cities in India as it is the biggest producer of leather. The city’s leather is exported to western markets including those in the US, UK and Germany. Unfortunately, Kanpur has also become notorious for having some of the country’s worst water pollution as a result of the tannery industry. This water is then used by local people and is channelled onto farmland, consequently poisoning the soil, entering the food chain and accumulating in local ecosystems. This poses extreme health risks to the tannery workers and farmers who handle toxic water on a daily basis .
Raw wool contains fat, suint, plant materials, grease, and minerals, which must be removed before it can be used for products. The contaminates equate to 30-70% of the total fleece weight . The cleaning process is known as scouring and uses a combination of detergents, wetting agents, bleaching agents, and emulsifiers before further processing, dyeing and finishing .
Farming animals for their fur, skin, wool, and feathers not only affects the animals and the environment, it also impacts humans.
Working in a slaughterhouse has proven to cause severe mental illnesses due to the harsh environment they work in. Workers are expected to kill hundreds to thousands of animals every hour, at high speeds in cold conditions, doing the exact same thing over and over again, with very few breaks. Studies conducted all over the world have found that workers have high levels of anxiety, anger, hostility and psychoticism. They also can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), and violent dreams, with many workers seeking treatment similar to that used to help war veterans [72, 73, 74, 75]. Symptoms of PITS include depression, paranoia, panic and dissociation .
The intense noise in the slaughterhouse can result in noise-induced hearing loss . Due to the processing of meat, extreme temperatures are needed, and this greatly increases the risks of frostbite and hypothermia . Workers also commonly suffer from upper limb work-related musculoskeletal disorders . Exposure to harsh chemicals and bacteria, viruses, fungi and ectoparasites can cause serious diseases .
Processing Plant Workers
Those who work with leather, wool, and fur are exposed to the toxic chemicals which cause serious skin conditions, tuberculosis, blindness, gastrointestinal issues. Children are also being born with severe mental and physical disabilities . Studies have found that 90% of tannery workers in these areas die before they are 50 due to chemical exposure and equipment accidents . Disturbingly, slave labour is also common with many workers being children as young as five. Studies have found that they are already infected with deadly diseases and commonly suffer from burns, intoxication, fumigation, fractures and amputations, and vision impairment [84, 85, 86].
People Living Near Factories/Farms
A study in Kentucky found that the incidence of leukemia among people living in an area surrounding a tannery was five times the national average . Arsenic, a common tannery chemical, has long been associated with lung cancer in workers who handle the chemical regularly . In Sweden and Italy, cancer risks were up to 50% higher than expected . Several studies have found links between sinus and lung cancers and the chromium used in the tanning process. A report on the health impacts of tanneries found that the health of 3.5 million people in Ranipet, India, has been jeopardized by a factory that produces the salts used in nearby tanneries. The groundwater and land had been contaminated from waste runoff and farmers who came in contact with the water suffered from skin ulcerations .
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US has previously fined six fur processing plants for causing high levels of pollution and for using solvents in fur dressing that “may cause respiratory problems, and are listed as possible carcinogens” [91, 92].
As a consumer, you too can still be impacted. Studies have shown that even finished leather products, especially those that directly touch the skin, including gloves and shoes, contain high levels of a toxic chemical called chromium. This chemical is considered to be a strong allergen that can lead to skin reactions such as eczema. A German study found the substance in over half of the leather products it inspected .
“Cruelty is a fashion statement we can all do without”.Rue McClanahan
In 2020, we no longer need to use animal-derived materials for our common goods. Alternatives to fur, leather, wool, cashmere, and feathers are available in abundance. Not only are these alternatives saving the lives of animals, but can also lower our environmental footprint and save human lives!
It is important for us as consumers, to work together and change our collective demands to more ethical, environmentally friendly, and people-friendly alternatives that are becoming available.