Bangladesh’s nightmarish leather industry makes the case for vegan products

Cows are being smuggled in from India, tannery workers’ lifespans are cut mercilessly short—all for a belt or pair of gloves.
Cows are being smuggled in from India, tannery workers’ lifespans are cut mercilessly short—all for a belt or pair of gloves.
Image: Reuters/K. K. Arora
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Most of us remember when, in 2013, a multistory building that housed several clothing factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 garment workers. Tragically, it took this disaster at Rana Plaza to show the world that cheap clothing often comes at a high cost to others.

But while this was the single deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, many people don’t realize that the death toll in Bangladesh continues to rise. PETA’s new video exposé, narrated by animal-rights activist and award-winning singer Leona Lewis, reveals that in Bangladesh’s billion-dollar leather industry, animals and workers—including children—are still paying the ultimate price for cheap fashion that uses “affordable” leather.

Every year, almost two million cows and bullocks (castrated bulls)—mostly animals with little flesh left on their bones who have outlived their usefulness on filthy dairy farms or no longer have the strength to pull overloaded carts in the stifling heat—are smuggled from India into Bangladesh to be killed for their skins. Because cows are considered holy animals by Hindus, it’s illegal to slaughter them in most parts of India.

Video footage from PETA’s exposé of the region’s leather trade revealed many cows from India who were emaciated, exhausted, and so malnourished that they couldn’t stand up by the time they reached Bangladesh. They suffered from broken tails and open, festering wounds. The eyewitness did not observe the animals receiving any kind of veterinary care.

In Bangladesh’s legal slaughterhouses, workers bind the animals’ legs and slit their throats while they are still conscious. The video footage shows a cow still alive and kicking as the skin is stripped off her body. At night, cows, as well as goats, are illegally slaughtered right in the street. Many of the animals can see others’ throats being slit before them. They know what is coming. You can see it in their eyes, wide with fear.

This industry is a nightmare for Bangladesh’s workers as well. Like other animal skins, leather is treated with a toxic brew of chemicals to prevent it from decomposing—including mineral salts, formaldehyde, chromium, coal-tar derivatives, and cyanide-based dyes. Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute), a group that strives to reduce pollution in developing countries, included tanneries on its list of the world’s top 10 “toxic pollution problems” in 2012.

PETA’s exposé highlights the conditions in Bangladesh, where tannery workers, including children, were documented performing hazardous tasks, such as soaking hides in chemicals and using large knives to cut skins. The unprotected workers stand barefoot in carcinogenic chemicals and use various acids that can cause chronic skin conditions. Children sometimes operate dangerous machinery. An estimated 90% of these tannery workers will die before the age of 50.

The chemicals used to treat leather endanger not only workers but also those who live nearby. PETA’s eyewitness visited several businesses in the section of Dhaka where there are more than 150 tanneries, but not a single sewage plant. Toxic chemicals are simply being dumped into the nearby river, endangering the local water supply.

Leather production is so unsafe that the process is being abandoned in most European countries and in the United States, and operations are moving overseas—jeopardizing the health of people in other parts of the world so that Westerners can continue sporting the latest designer leather steals, in the form of handbags, gloves, and shoes. Is this really how we want to spend our money?

Science—and common sense—tells us that cows are sentient beings who value their lives in the same ways that we value ours. Did you know that cows have distinct personalities? Some are bold and adventurous, while others are shy and timid. They are intelligent and curious animals who form social hierarchies, can recognize more than 100 members of their herd, have best friends and cliques, and even hold grudges against other cows who have treated them badly. They also mourn when a loved one dies, and there are countless reports of mother cows frantically calling and searching for their calves after they have been taken away and sold for veal.

The good news is that it’s easy to get the look of leather without contributing to suffering. Well-known designers and retailers offer an array of stylish vegan shoes, jackets, handbags, wallets, and much more. Their products use cork, bark, vegan Ultrasuede derived from post-industrial polyester, microfiber made from recycled plastic bottles, and other high-quality materials that are less harmful than leather—for humans, animals, and the planet.

Vegan leather makes good business sense, too: A recent Brookings Institution study notes that 89% of millennials polled expressed “a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues.” Vegan leather fits the bill.

No matter where they come from—Bangladesh, China, India, or even the United States—items made from animal skins are a result of intense suffering. In order to change the existing model of exploitation, we must share the true human and animal stories behind leather products—this is the only way to end the misery.