Despite the popularity of plant-based diets and the looming threat of the Impossible Burger and its ilk, beef remains king in the United States.
Beef sales, as a matter of fact, are up year-over-year. (Not that it’s totally relevant to this article, but there’s been a big jump in sales of ground beef, for some reason.) The sales numbers for beef, though, haven’t been reflected in all cattle products. Are we looking at the death of leather?
The vast majority of leather comes from meat animals and retired dairy cows; it is, essentially, a byproduct. Leather quality varies quite a bit, but for centuries the tanned and treated hides of cattle were a valuable source of income for ranchers. According to Bloomberg, leather once accounted for around five percent of an animal’s value. Today? Less than half of one percent. Hides that used to sell for $75 or more are now either selling for $10 or less, languishing unsold in barns, or simply discarded, for lack of a buyer.
Leather has a few key advantages, as a material. It’s flexible and yet fantastically strong: nearly impossible to rip, resistant (once treated) to water, sand, and wind. Today, of course, it’s mostly valued for its implication of luxury, hence leather seats in cars, fancy leather shoes, and purses.
Because it’s a byproduct, you might expect leather’s environmental impact to be low, but in fact it is not. For one thing, it helps support the beef industry, which is notoriously just about the worst environmental industry there is. The methods used to treat and tan the leather are also quite dangerous; Bloomberg says much of the American leather output is actually sent abroad for processing, because the treatment is harsh enough to run afoul of American laws.
So why has demand for leather dropped so much? Partly it’s due to changing fashions and promising alternatives. Leather simply is not in demand for everyday fashion as much as it once was, and other materials have taken over. Synthetic materials, like spandex, nylon, and polyester (and blends with plant-based materials like cotton) have become especially popular for athletic and athleisure brands. Previously lesser-known fabrics made from plants like bamboo have taken off, as well.
All that adds up to a much lower demand for leather. Bloomberg quotes some ranchers who say the industry has lost tens of millions of dollars, and who have begun to give away hides for free, or throw them out.
Clarification: This story has been updated to note that the author was referring to the environmental record of the entire structure of the beef industry, and not just cattle ranching.