Market forces are driving improvements in animal welfare
While leather manufacturers are not directly responsible for raising cattle, they have always had an interest in the welfare of the animals from which hides are derived. The reasons are two-fold: first, a well-cared-for cow will produce a better-quality hide with fewer imperfections and so, ultimately, will make better leather; and, secondly, end customers are curious – now more so than ever – about the source of the leather they buy, demanding reassurance that cattle are ethically treated. Both issues are especially critical in the case of automotive leather upholstery, where unblemished hides are at a premium and car manufacturers are under huge pressure from customers to demonstrate sustainable credentials. An essay on the Nothing to Hide website, entitled The importance of animal welfare to the leather industry, describes how these dual motivations, which have always been a part of the sector, have intensified in the last twenty years across the board. This has resulted in an industry that is far more focused on animal welfare than ever before.
The essay, originally published in 2014, has been updated with new insights from animal welfare campaigner Dr Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. Her fundamental contention is that it is permissible for humans to use animals as long as they are treated well right up to the moment of slaughter. Since the 1990s, she has advised on and implemented various systems to ensure the good treatment of cattle, which has resulted in greater transparency and higher standards. In particular, she has developed an auditing system that checks that specific standards are being met. For example, the way animals are corralled, how workers treat them, and how painlessly the cattle are killed come under scrutiny. Facilities must also show that they are being run in a way that any general member of the public would find acceptable.
Animal welfare in Europe
According to Nothing to Hide, the European leather industry is following suit with these kinds of initiatives. Its representative body, COTANCE, launched a plan for better hide traceability as far back as 2011 and has urged tanners to drive better governance. It recognises that, apart from the moral obligations to raise animals ethically, “customers want to know where the leather comes from”. Today, all kinds of traceability schemes are in place around the world to provide full transparency and documentation about where the original hides come from and how the animals - from which the hides were taken - were treated.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to guarantee the welfare of animals everywhere. But there is gathering momentum for more transparency driven largely by fast-food brands – one of the main global customers for cattle farmers. They too are finding themselves answerable to their customers and need to demonstrate that they are doing everything possible to raise cattle responsibly.
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