In February 2020, animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ended its iconic ‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ campaign, after nearly three decades of fighting for fur-free fashion (PETA, 2020). Following many of the world’s leading designers, many cities and countries across the world have now banned fur, from Los Angeles to Sao Paulo, from the UK to Japan (PETA, 2020). So, with a revised headline – ’I’d Rather Bare Skin Than Wear Skin’, and the same explicitness – PETA’s new fake store Urban Outrage features products made from human-derived leather (PETA, 2021) – the activist group has shifted its focus on the leather and wool trades, which it considers to be equally violent. (PETA, 2020)
Now, despite being in steady decline, the fur industry is still solid (Fifur, 2019), and the leather industry even more so: the market is even expected to grow at an annual rate of 6.2% by 2027, as it targets a much broader consumer range, all around the world (Mordor Intelligence, 2022). Leather is indeed found in about anything: clothing, shoes, bags, cases, wallets, luggage, upholstery, etc. It is a mastodon, a US$100 billion manufacturing sector according to a report from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (2010, p. 103), mainly due to the material’s reputation to be noble, natural and durable. However, another important factor is the dilemma that leather buyers who also support animal rights often find themselves in, which corresponds to what social psychologist Leon Festinger defined in his book as cognitive dissonance (1962, p. 2). Indeed, a study in South Africa examined
the role of luxury value perceptions and ethical concerns in consumers’ environmentally significant behaviour and purchase intent for genuine leather products', and revealed that '[r]espondents’ expressed strong ethical concerns but almost never participate in environmentally significant behaviour. (De Klerk, 2019, p. 1)
Such an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviour seems to occur more often in the case of leather buyers than fur buyers (Carrier et al., 2013, p. 137). This article will therefore expound facts about leather, demonstrating the topicality of the issues at stake, then investigate the existing literature on media representations of fur and leather. The aim is to argue that, since media representations of animals is a rapidly growing research field, filling the gap in research on leather could lead to better educated consumer choices, which can eventually bring changes in industrial methods, policies and regulations.
First, Europe is the largest consumer of leather goods in the world, ‘with the strong prevalence of fashion-driven countries, such as France and Italy’, according to market intelligence and advisory firm Mordor Intelligence (2022, p. 2). As moral concerns regard nearly all animal industries, because their principles and consequences clash with certain current societal values (Gremmen, 2020), it is important to provide the public with accurate information and avoid any misconceptions. First of all, wearing leather does not mean saving waste from cows slaughtered for meat. Indeed, every year, about a billion animals are raised and killed expressly for their skin (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020). A Greenpeace report indeed showed that leather represents more than 25% of the Brazilian cattle trade’s value (Greenpeace, 2009), sparking a debate on leather's status as a co-product rather than a by-product of the meat industry.
Then, even though 70% of leather goods comes from cattle, they are, in fact, often a combination of multiple types of skin, ranging from goat, pig, sheep, rabbit, alligator, kangaroo, ostrich, to cat or dog skin (PETA, n.d). Investigations by NGOs revealed the extent of the cat and dog meat trade in China (Animals Asia, 2015), estimating that up to 14 million animals (cats and dogs combined) are slaughtered each year for flesh and skin - China being the world’s top leather exporter according to the French Conseil National du Cuir (2021). Founder of The Good Food Institute Bruce Friedrich (2011) further explains that, while labelled as produced in Europe, the materials ‘are very likely sourced from the cheapest country possible’, and ‘where animal welfare and environmental regulations either don’t exist or are not enforced’. In India, cows often undergo abuse including castration, branding with hot iron and no painkillers, tail breaking, having tobacco and chili peppers ribbed into their eyes, and eventually often get skinned alive (PETA, 2020).
However, as much as the leather trade is harmful for animals, the tanning process also makes it hazardous for human populations. More than 80% of tanning processes indeed use chromium, which has been linked to increased risks of lung, skin, kidney, buccal, pharynx, pancreatic, sinonasal, soft tissue and testicular cancers (Rastogi et al., 2007). A report by Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland (2015) estimated that almost 16 million people – workers, including children, and surrounding residents, are exposed to such toxic products in their everyday life:
Toxic effluents released from chromium plants often contaminate surface and groundwater sources and pose serious hazards to nearby communities. For example, more than 200 tanneries in the region of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh generate 7.7 million litres of liquid waste and 88 tons of solid waste every day. (p. 47)
Besides, more demand for leather also means more intensive farming, which accounts for around 15% of the total greenhouse-gas emissions and 65% of the Amazon’s deforestation (Greenpeace, 2016). In addition, 20% of total greenhouse-gas emissions are due to tropical deforestation (Asner, 2009).
Hence, not only is the livestock system the major driver of deforestation, but the wasted chemicals mentioned above are also incredibly hazardous. Studies over the past decades have demonstrated how leather-making can lead to severe environmental pollution. In a 2005 article published in Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers estimated ‘that pretanning and tanning processes contribute 80–90% of the total pollution load’ (Thanikaivelan et al., 2005, p. 1). A 2019 life-cycle-assessment concluded that the 10,000 tanneries in the world contribute very highly to ‘human toxicity, ecosystem, metal and water resources depletion’ (Tasca and Puccini, 2019, p. 1). The latter was mainly based on Italian data, which alone represents nearly 20% of global leather production, but follows fairly stringent EU environmental laws (Conseil National du Cuir, 2021). Emerging countries such as China, Brazil or India, which are also significant exporters (Conseil National du Cuir, 2021) have much weaker regulations (OECD, 2016).
The leather industry therefore raises a number of ethical concerns, ranging from animal, human to environmental welfare, and would benefit from more research fitting within the ‘Media Effects’ tradition, more specifically the ‘Cumulative Effects Model’. Such frameworks of study do not deny the significance of variables such as individual differences, social relationships or even social categories, but they assume that, through cumulative exposure, people tend to absorb the media’s representation of reality as their own, whether in terms of belief and attitude acquisition – known as cognitions, or in terms of affect – that is, emotional reactions (Perse and Lambe, 2017). In short, media content can be viewed as a prime explanation for long-term audience perception of animal-derived clothing. For example, a recent study by Shin and Jin (2001) examined the effects of growing stigma around wearing fur on consumer behaviours due to anti-fur movements and the emergence of faux fur, and found that shame by status-seeking consumers was only perceived for genuine coats and not fake ones, indicating that 'perceived stigma can hurt the demand for genuine fur coat' (p. 1).
The researchers concluded that ‘brands need to consider any developments in society that can influence the demand for their products and make informed decisions’ (2021, p. 14), which could very well be applied to the leather industry.
However, Carrier et al. (2013) noted that:
[i]n spite of the growing emphasis on the consumption of ecological goods, and the abundance of articles on the consumption of fur, […] very little has been said or written on the consumption of leather goods, and more specifically of fashionable leather goods. (p. 134)
The literature is still quite sparse in 2022. Carrier’s study investigated how the perception of leather of 16-to-34-year-old Quebeckers was influenced by two contradictory factors. On the one hand, ‘[l]eather goods are now often considered as luxury items, a sub-sector of the fashion industry which has been outgrowing all others in the last few years’ (p. 133), and to which young consumers are increasingly attracted. On the other, leather is often by definition ‘seen as non-ethical, requiring the killing of animals, and non-ecological, since the production process is polluting’ (p. 133). The researchers also suspected that the determinants to the purchase of real leather behave more similarly to those of fur than those of general apparel and accessories (Carrier et al., 2013)
Carrier used surveys to test the theories of two previous papers. First, Belleau’s study (2006) found that consumer’s attitudes toward alligator leather products and their perceptions of social pressures by others were the strongest influences on their purchase intentions. People with college education as well as those drawn to fashion seemed to have a significantly higher purchase intention than other respondents (Belleau et al., 2006, pp. 414-417). Then, another significant study by Belton and Clinton about society’s influence on teenagers’ perceptions of fur and leather goods found that ‘consumers who were less influenced by society expressed more of a positive attitude towards fur’ (2007, p. 5). They concluded to strong similarities between fur and leather consumers, as well as strong correlations between the respondents’ environment, education level and overall perception of leather and their propensity to buy exotic leather items.
Carrier’s study in turn found a very strong association between interest for fashion in comparison with one’s peers and one’s likelihood to purchase leather, confirming Belleau’s theory; as well as a ‘positive relationship between people’s intention to purchase a leather item and education level’ (Carrier et al., 2013, p. 135), validating Belton and Clinton’s findings. Other important determinants were durability, ecological impact, country of origin, and ethical concerns, which were fairly even among all educational levels. The results were the same for fur, although to a greater extent, confirming that ‘the commerce of fur still has this negative aura’ and that ‘the non-ethical aspects in the commerce of fur is transferred to the commerce of leather’ (Carrier et al., 2013, p. 137). Unfortunately, the study’s major weakness is its limitation to the province of Quebec.
Nevertheless, De Klerk (2019) reported that, with the significant growth of veganism and environmentalism, awareness of ethical implications has made current consumers more careful in their choices, sometimes decreasing their purchase intent. ‘The luxury market has not escaped this drive towards sustainability, and environmental-, social- and animal-cruelty concerns of top Brands have now become a major challenge for the luxury industry’ (De Klerk et al., 2019, p. 23). Despite this fact, though, De Klerk’s study found that most customers still tend to think more about price and image before triggering a change in ‘their purchasing behaviour to reflect their positive attitudes towards environmentalism’ (De Klerk et al., 2019, p. 23-24). More ethical cosmetic choices could decrease animal abuse. Therefore, the question of media representations is important to investigate, as they have the power to influence opinions and behaviours, and thus to encourage or shift global attitudes towards leather.
In conclusion, the leather industry is understandably controversial due to its cruelty towards animals, its consequences on human health and its disastrous environmental impact. Campaigns and studies on fur have demonstrated the impact of ethical concerns on consumer behaviours and have influenced policy makers leading to bans on real fur in several countries. In the case of leather, however, little has changed since 2007:
[t]he current literature provides a vast amount of information regarding consumers’ attitudes concerning the use of animal products for clothing in popular literature (trade publications, newspaper articles) [but] there is little literature from scholarly journals, specifically research that examines young consumers’ attitudes and perceptions towards leather. (Belton and Clinton, 2007, p.1)
Such academic work will be essential in providing insight into current trends, and, most importantly, in raising awareness of the issues at stake, giving the public the power to make better-informed consumer choices.
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