I had the great honor of giving the keynote lecture at Fashion Week for Princeton University’s Sustainable Fashion Initiative on May 7, 2014. I’d never been to the Princeton campus, and was awestruck by the architecture and expanse. I was then told that the gorgeous lecture hall – complete with antique wooden chairs and original fixtures – in which I’d be speaking was the same room that Einstein gave his final lesson. I’m not much of an emotional guy, but this moved me. It made me feel like my research had so much more potential.
As the Fashion & Animals talk evolves and is refined, the picture of what we’re up against when confronting the mainstream fashion industrial complex becomes clearer and clearer. I recently did some research that was absolutely shocking regarding the environmental impacts of wool and leather. This research proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that, when scaled up to the colossal magnitude that we see today, the leather and wool industries can never be sustainable.
THE PROBLEM IS LIVESTOCK
“… livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” (source)
Frighteningly, livestock production is on the rise, with global bovine cattle at 1.6 billion heads in 2012 (6.4 million tonnes [wet & salted weight] of hides and skins), up from 1.4 billion in 1995, and global wool/sheepskin production has remained steady around 1.1 billion heads (at 400 thousand tonnes [wet & salted weight]). Just to give you a reference, 6.4 million tonnes of hides and skins is the weight of more than 19 Empire State Buildings!
6.4 million tonnes of hides and skins is the weight of more than 19 Empire State Buildings! Every Year.
Goat production is also on a sharp rise, from over 600 million heads in 1995 to just under 1 billion is 2012 (at 340 thousand tonnes). All animals combined, that’s roughly 3.5 billion animals impacting global warming, land, water and air through both rearing and then processing of over 7 million tonnes of skins and hides. (source) The impacts of other animals used in fashion, from rabbits (fur), poultry (feathers & down) and swine (leather) to fish and farmed or wild caught reptiles, birds and mammals are not factored in to these specific ecological impacts, but should add significant implications.
Tanning one tonne of raw hides requires about 50 cubic metres of water. Bovine leather alone, at a global 6.4 million tonnes therefore results in a 320 million cubic meters (m³) of water used annually. (source) During the tanning process at least 660 lbs of chemicals (lime, salt etc.) are added per ton of hides. Bovine leather alone results in roughly 4.2 million lbs of tanning chemicals used annually (source). That’s the weight of almost 6 Empire State Buildings. Tanning results in large volumes of effluent contaminated with toxic compounds including aluminum, chromium sulphide and caustic soda. (source) Meat consumption is projected to rise nearly 73% by 2050, with related implications for associated industries like leather. (source)
According to the United Nations, “The world’s sheep population is just over one billion – one for roughly every six people. Nearly half are in Asia and the Near and Middle East. Sheep are the species with the highest number of recorded breeds – contributing 25 percent to the global total for mammals.” (source)
In New Zealand, which has approx. 48 million sheep, methane emissions from enteric fermentation, coming mostly from sheep, constitute almost 50% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This has a huge impact on climate change. Combine that with erosion, water pollution, resource needs like water, graze-land, processing needs, etc, and wool becomes a lot less sustainable that we’d like to think. The breeding and perpetuation of this industry is ecologically devastating.(source). In addition to the ecological impacts there are ethical implications like the cruel Australian live export of sheep (source), and “ultra-fine” wool production. (source)