Animal furs and leather from tanned animal hides and skins have been used to make clothing for thousands of years. Fur and leather remain important industries today. Fur is used to produce a variety of outer garments, such as coats, jackets, hats, gloves and boots, and it provides trim for other types of garments as well. Leather is used to make garments and can be employed in the manufacture of other products, including leather upholstery for automobiles and furniture, and a wide variety of leather goods, such as watch straps, purses and suitcases. Footwear is another traditional leather product.
Fur-producing animals include aquatic species such as beaver, otter, muskrat and seal; northern land species such as fox, wolf, mink, weasel, bear, marten and raccoon; and tropical species such as leopard, ocelot and cheetah. In addition, the young of certain animals such as cattle, horse, pig and goat may be processed to produce furs. Although most fur-bearing animals are trapped, mink in particular is produced on fur farms.
The major sources of leather are cattle, pigs, lambs and sheep. As of 1990, the United States was the largest producer of bovine hides and skins. Other significant producers include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany (former Federal Republic) and India. Australia, China, India, Islamic Republic of Iran, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United Kingdom are major producers of sheepskins. Goatskins are largely produced in China, India and Pakistan. The major producers of pigskin are China, Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
An analysis prepared by Landell Mills Commodities Studies (LMC) for the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that the international market for hides is increasingly dominated by a few large producing countries in North America, Western Europe and Oceania, which allow free exportation of hides in any form. The tanning industry in the United States has been shrinking steadily since 1981, while most surviving tanneries in northern Europe have diversified in order to reduce dependence on the footwear-leather market. Worldwide footwear production has continued to shift primarily to Southeast Asia (ILO 1992).
Several factors influence the overall demand for leather throughout the world: the level, rate of growth and distribution of income; the price of leather compared to alternative materials; and changes in consumers’ preference for leather over alternative materials for a variety of products.
The fastest growing end-use sector in the leather industry has been leather upholstery, which accounted for about one-third of the world’s high-quality bovine leather production in 1990. Over one-third of all upholstery leather is destined for the vehicle industry and, according to LMC forecasts, the prospects for this subsector are fairly bright. The proportion of cars with leather upholstery has increased substantially through the 1990s.
The demand for leather garments is determined primarily by income and fashion, while fashion particularly influences the changing demand for specific types of leather. For example, a strong demand for the softer, more supple sheepskin leather in fashion garments motivated the production of the fashionable garment nappa from sheepskins and cattle hides.
The major producers of mink pelts in 1996 were Canada, the Russian Federation, the Scandinavian countries and the United States.
Between 1980 and 1989, leather employment increased in China, Hungary, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Uruguay and Venezuela and decreased in Australia, Colombia, Kenya, the Philippines, Poland and the United States. Leather employment also fell in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In Botswana leather employment declined sharply in 1984, then experienced a steep increase, doubling the 1980 level by 1988.
There are several issues which will affect future production and employment in the leather, footwear and fur industries. New technology, the relocation of footwear production to developing countries and environmental regulations in the tanning industry will continue to affect the skills and the health and safety of workers in these industries.