This presentation gives an overview of the animal rights lobby, who it represents, what it is based on and what it is saying. This is an issue that the leather industry is taking seriously but, at the same time, it is important to react to the propaganda positively, appropriately and, in most cases, indirectly.

Most of the criticism of the industry is highly selective, exaggerated or distorted and, in most cases, it is considered to be unwise to respond directly because this has the effect of raising the profile of the issue in question, potentially enhancing negative publicity.

As a rule, the recommended course of action being followed, wherever appropriate, is to promote the positive aspects of the industry, generate positive publicity and seek to improve the general level of understanding of the industry in the supply chain, among consumers and broadly in the public arena.

In these days of corporate social responsibility, there is an opportunity to formalise, through a code of practice or some other auditable measure, a positive approach to demonstrating that the industry operates reasonably, responsibly and ethically.

We have all seen the articles, leaflets and/or websites. A number of organisations with, apparently, a small number of dedicated and strongly motivated co-ordinators, use emotive images and stories to motivate and encourage participation by a much wider group of susceptible and often well meaning activists and other sympathisers.

The messages may seem highly selective, extreme, unsubstantiated, faddish and/or illogical. However, to the target audience, much of the material is reasonable, plausible and often sufficiently shocking to generate support, sympathy and sometimes active support, among the general public; and more especially gain the sympathy of the younger, unsophisticated and/or idealistic part of the population – which also forms an important part of our industry’s current and future potential customer base.

It is hardly subtle but it is, in some ways, very clever. It is often shocking, evoking sympathy and containing just enough truth to be plausible.

It is also very negative in approach – commonly based on a vegan or vegetarian philosophy that makes it difficult to win a direct, rational argument, because the propagandists simply shift their ground.

Quoting examples of bad practice is a popular tactic. These are often not difficult to find – although they may be unusual, based on unsubstantiated hearsay or quoted out of context.

One hears of bad practice from European and US farms or abattoirs; the more popular target over recent years has been the alleged mistreatment of cattle in India.

Part of the animal rights’ lobby’s more recent tactics has been to attack some particular aspect – where they feel that they have had a strong case.

The leading example is the PETA attack on Indian leather, based on the historic reports of cruelty to animals in the Indian supply chain.

PETA have pursued this by pressing companies to boycott Indian leather and have reinforced this, using their army of volunteers, in a number of well publicised cases to carry out physical attacks on targeted shops and chains.

This has proved to be quite an effective actic. A broader concern for the industry is that since they are a vegan organisation, there is no logical limit to potential action against any animal product. However, this broader attack on all animal products has resulted in some problems and loss of credibility for PETA.

A campaign involving distributing information cards outside schools denigrating milk consumption as an anti-social health hazard was stopped in 2001 after three specific complaints were upheld by an adjudication from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

In February 2003, the ASA upheld 14 out of 16 complaints against claims made in a direct mailing leaflet promoting a vegetarian lifestyle. On one hand, a victory for reason and common sense but, on the other hand, PETA are understood to view the attention and coverage as welcome added publicity for their general campaign.

The general message I want to convey about the animal rights lobby is:

* Don’t underestimate it

* Don’t ignore it

* But Don’t Panic!!!

The current response

As previously indicated, BLC has been keeping a close watching brief on the activities of some of the key animal rights’ lobbying groups. BLC has been following and recommending that others follow the strategy of not, as a matter of course, responding directly to this type of propaganda.

This is on the basis that the aim behind the propaganda is maximum publicity and the story is often made by the response and the public argument.

The approach is, wherever appropriate, to promote the positive aspects of the industry, generate positive publicity and seek to improve the level of understanding in the supply chain, among consumers and broadly in the public arena. This should give people a better-informed basis on which to evaluate the propaganda.

Where asked directly for a response – for example by business customers, consumers or the media – the following points are used to answer requests for information:

* Leather is a byproduct – the basis of much of the leather industry is cattle and sheep that are reared specifically for the production of meat, wool and dairy products. The value of cattle hides and sheepskins represents in the region of 5-10% of the market value of an animal

* The leather industry utilises hides and skins which would, if the industry did not exist to process them, create an enormous waste disposal problem with the attendant health hazards

* Leather is a renewable natural resource – if leather was not produced, it would have to be replaced by synthetic materials derived from non-renewable resources

* Leather is used in a wide range of products from children’s shoes, where it is most important for foot health, to oil seals in aircraft.

* Leather makes a contribution to the quality of everyday life and has done so for centuries. Virtually everyone in the country wears or uses one or more leather products on a regular basis.

Another relevant comment is that the leather industry takes a very close interest in the quality of its raw material. Good quality raw material is characterised by a lack of significant damage and this makes the material more valuable.

As a result, the leather industry has a close vested interest in animals being healthy and well treated, quite apart from a general interest in the overall well being and performance of the farming and meat industries.

Possible approaches for the future

In global terms, it is questionable whether such animal rights’ lobbying has much impact on overall meat consumption.

Statistics from FAO report that between 1961 and 2002, total world meat production went up from 71.2 million tons to 245 million tons. For beef and veal, the increase was from 27.6 million to 57.9 million tons.

In developed markets, meat consumption fluctuates according to market conditions, especially for individual types of meat, but the overall trend is upwards.

From our industry perspective, the impact of the lobby is most likely to be seen at a much more ‘localised’ level – with, perhaps individual countries, brands, retailers or product lines being brought into the firing line. One effect may be that customers make specifications or require additional assurances.

But all of this is not necessarily negative. The leather industry in Europe has been successful at competing on quality, performance, fashion, service to customers and meeting specifications.

Our ability to meet these requirements is what gives us a competitive edge, even as a relatively high cost producer. We are rapidly moving into the arena of product assurance, environmental performance and corporate social responsibility.

We can all prepare by investigating a practical system of product assurance. For example: raw materials come from known sources, which are assured, certified or inspected to declare that animals have been treated humanely; the material has been handled hygienically; it has been sampled and assured not to be dog or cat skin; no child or forced labour has been used in the production process and the labour force is suitably protected by the application of recognised health, safety and environmental standards.

A workable, practical and sensible system could become a positive selling point for supplying brands and retailers with an assured product.

This will not necessarily satisfy a vegan who wants to buy or promote NoBull Footwear, Vegan Belts, or non-leather MooShoes, but it would potentially address the great majority of objections that the average consumer might have.

The animal rights lobby and the messages

‘Most of the millions of cows, pigs, sheep and goats slaughtered for their skin endure the horrors of factory farming – overcrowding, deprivation, unanaesthetised castration, branding, tail-docking, and de-horning. At the end of their short miserable lives they are stunned, skinned, hung upside down and bled to death.’

‘The meat industry relies on skin sales to remain profitable. Buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and slaughterhouses since skin accounts for 55% of the byproduct value of cattle.’

‘Every time you choose to buy a leather jacket or leather shoes, you sentence an animal to a lifetime of suffering.’

Source: PETA website – []

‘Before Bessie the cow and Ferdinand the bull turn into classy leather briefcases, ranchers slice off Ferdinand’s balls. They probably brand both with hot irons (is that before or after they slice them off?) and may very well yank out their budding horns. All this is done without painkillers. Even in the US, slaughterhouse workers often illegally scald, skin and slice up conscious cows. They sometimes beat them with baseball bats and lead pipes…’

Source: ‘No skin off their backs’, Dogs Today, May 2003.