Bloomberg has an interesting story on the economics behind the leather trade, and how the decline of meat consumption is adversely affecting one American maker of leather shoelaces. An excerpt:
A typical steer weighs from 1,300 to 1,400 pounds. Its carcass yields about 850 pounds of meat, which sells wholesale for an average of $2,300, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. The hide sells for about $100, making it a mere 4.3 percent of the value of the animal. (Dairy cattle hides cost a little less, but the meat-to-hide ratio is the same.) Leather in all its forms—the aspirational $10,000 Hermès bag, the $6,000 upgrade package in a Mercedes, the $120 New Balance sneaker—is the wrapper around what will become someone else’s Big Mac.
For thousands of years, this byproduct was vegetable-tanned: The skins would soak in natural tannins for several weeks until they pickled to the texture of what we think of as leather. There’s an equally long history of people using tanned leather for apparel, but until the Industrial Revolution, the material was used sparingly. As a rule, the only people clothed in hide were people surrounded by cattle. American Indians had a surfeit of bison and wore leather apparel for centuries. In Western society, leather didn’t go mainstream until after World War I, and it was only in the 1950s that “leather became much more available,” says Michelle Finamore, a curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This was the result of America’s embrace of factory farming. By the mid-1970s, there were 140 million head of cattle in the U.S.—more than one cow for every woman in the country. Cattle totals began to decrease in the 1980s, as ranchers got better at making their cows fatter faster, and Americans started reevaluating red meat. In 1985 there were almost 110 million head of cattle, according to the USDA, and the average American ate 79 pounds of beef a year. By 2009 the cattle population had dropped 32 percent, and Americans consumed just 61 pounds of beef each. Every time you opt for a salad over a burger, the law of supply and demand works against Lisa Howlett.