Accurate global statistics on the numbers of animals killed for clothing are not readily available, an uncomfortable fact in and of itself. The clothing industry and the animal agriculture industries are so interconnected that most countries do not count animals passing through either system separately, since they will usually end up suffering the same fate. What is clear, though, is that many millions of animals are suffering all over the world, purely for the sake of fashion.

Perhaps the most contentious and widely opposed use of animals in fashion is perpetuated by the fur industry. Contrary to popular belief, most fur is sourced from animals who are raised captively in fur farms, the most commonly used animals being mink and foxes. Animals raised for their fur are usually kept in extremely cramped conditions and prevented from engaging in their natural behaviours, and studies reveal that such deprivation causes severe stress. Mink and foxes are usually permitted a measly six or seven months of life, after which they are skinned and slaughtered. Animals are usually killed by anal electrocution in order to maintain fur quality, but methods also include being clubbed to death, gassed, or having their necks broken by hand.

China is the largest exporter of fur and has almost no laws that prosecute abuses on factory farms – this makes even the most horrific treatment perfectly legal. Even fur sourced from the US is subject to these same abuses, since there is no federal humane slaughter law that protects animals on fur farms. Many choose to opt for wild-caught fur as an alternative to these farms, yet this hardly represents a meaningfully better option. Those animals who are trapped in the wild rather than farmed usually die in their traps either from shock, blood loss, or in cases where traps are not regularly checked, starvation. This could not be further from the lie that is sold to us about a quick, instant kill. Though, even a swift killing would hardly justify ending an animal’s life for the sake of a vanity item. To decide that it is justified for an animal to be killed for fur is to buy into the notion that our desire to look a particular way is more important than an animal’s right to live.

Despite the widespread and impassioned public opposition to fur, relatively few people share the same enmity towards the leather industry. This is a bizarre double standard, since similar abuses to those experienced by animals raised for fur are also experienced by cows who are killed for their leather. It is generally assumed that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, but it is more accurate to describe it as a subsidy. Selling the skins of slaughtered cows is highly profitable, meaning that skins are not sold to avoid waste, as many people will argue, but to maximise profit. 

Many cows are also raised specifically for their leather, though this is usually outsourced to developing countries like India, where welfare and safety standards are extremely difficult to monitor. The softest leather comes from the skin of new-born or even unborn calves, which is often used to make soft suede. Estimates vary by country, but studies conducted in Germany have suggested that around 10% of females sent to slaughter are pregnant, with around 50% of these animals being in the second or third trimester.

The danger of dismissing leather as a by-product of meat is that it fails to recognise how interconnected and co-dependent the leather and meat industries are, since both would be far less profitable without the other. Objecting to eating an animal’s flesh on the basis of animal exploitation and cruelty, yet failing to do the same for wearing an animal’s skin obtained in exactly the same way, is inconsistent at best. Both products require the death of an animal, and purchasing leather helps make the exploitation and slaughter of cows a profitable affair.

On the contrary, obtaining wool does not require the deaths of the animals who are farmed for it. This does not mean, however, that sheep do not die as a direct result of the wool industry, or that the production or purchasing of wool is without problems. The defence for wool is usually just to remind us that sheep need to be shorn anyway, and this is true, but only because we have intensively bred them to produce far more wool than is manageable. Sheep raised specifically for their wool are often treated as little more than wool-producing machines. Shortly after birth, lambs are castrated if they are male and have their tails cut off, often without anaesthetic.

Shearers are usually paid per sheep rather than per hour, which encourages fast processing speeds. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that injuries are common; they can range from small scratches to deep, painful wounds. Sheep are often sheared too close or when it is too cold – this is done to maximise profit, but it means that many sheep die from exposure or hypothermia. Once their wool production declines in quality, sheep are almost always sent to slaughter. This is also true of many of their lambs, who can be killed as young as two months old during lambing season.

Even animal fabrics that you may not assume involve suffering can cause significant harm to both animals and humans. Silk is one such example – a seemingly innocuous fabric which in fact involves the deaths of thousands of animals. Silkworms weave cocoons in order to emerge as adult moths, but in commercial silk production, pupae (larva transitioning to moths) are boiled alive while still in the cocoon, in a process which the industry calls ‘stoving’. Just one pound of silk requires boiling 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons. While many people may not feel like the suffering of worms is particularly important, they do exhibit a pain response, and so there can be no justification for refusing to take this into consideration. It is not just cruelty to animals which needs to be considered, either, the silk industry is well known for its human rights abuses, with The Human Rights Watch reporting that hundreds of thousands of children toil as virtual slaves in order to produce silk.

All of these products come at a significant environmental cost, too. The Higgs Sustainability index ranks cow leather only behind alpaca wool as one of the least sustainable materials, with silk and wool not far behind. Conventional leather production involves the use of acids, salts, fungicides, bactericides and a whole host of other toxic chemicals. This affects workers as well as the environment; illness and death due to toxic tanning chemicals are extremely common. Leather is also notoriously water intensive, with 90% of the water used in the tanning process being discharged as poisonous effluent. The chemicals used to produce silk, wool and leather are highly toxic, and this must be factored in on top of the emissions produced and energy used to sustain the animals who produce them.