Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Leather Shoelaces & How They Relate To Lunch

This Bloomberg piece about where leather shoelaces come from — and the domestic leather goods industry in general — is fascinating in a gross way:

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.

Yum! And the fact that you’re eating fewer Big Macs? That’s bad for the bottom line.

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 [struggling small-ish family business owner] Lisa Howlett.

That’s too bad, because Lisa seems cool:

She drives a late-model Subaru Outback that’s adorned with “COEXIST,” “Member of the religious left,” and Human Rights Campaign bumper stickers. She bristles at the suggestion that tanneries are bad for the environment. Her facilities include a filtering system connected to the town’s wastewater treatment plant, and most of the tannery’s byproduct is recycled. “Contrary to popular opinion, those who make leather don’t want to be the bad guy,” Howlett says. “My vegan friends say, ‘Oh no, your leather shoes are from an animal,’ and I say, ‘Well, do you know where it would be if it wasn’t on my feet? In a landfill.’ ”

Every hide Howlett buys comes from a dairy cow. “A dairy cow’s been walking around, being milked, for six to eight years,” she says. “The hide is tougher and thinner, which is what you need for a strong piece of leather.” (A steer, in contrast, is usually killed after about 18 months and has spent much of its life stationary, which gives it a thick skin. The top of a steer hide is often used for automotive leather, while the bottom, which is textured because of its connection to muscle, is turned into suede.)

It seems like that paragraph should disprove the headline of the article (“Your Salad Lunches Are Killing American Leather”). If Howlett gets her hides from dairy cows, not steers, the current American preference for reducing red meat consumption shouldn’t affect her business. But because the price of a dairy cow tracks the price of a steer, her business is suffering because we’ve realized, as a society, that red meat should probably be eaten in moderation, if at all:

those who consumed about four ounces of red meat a day (the equivalent of about a small hamburger) were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. … Another extensive study on the matter in 2012 reaffirmed the hypothesis: Excessive consumption of red meat (over 42 grams a day, according to the researchers) correlated to increased mortality rates.

Beef is flagged as being particularly dangerous, as well as something of a hazard to the environment. What’s a businesswoman to do? Innovate.

Howlett’s solution is to produce more leather goods while using less leather for each product, a strategy that might prove instructive for the entire industry. “We’ve worked with our major customers like Sperry Top-Sider and said, ‘OK, our cost is going to be astronomical based on the substance requirements right now,’ ” she says. “If we change the requirements by 0.2 millimeters, which won’t diminish the quality or strength of the lace, we can counteract the hide market. And they said yes.”

Howlett has also set her sights on those $12 shoulder flaps. “That’s where you get your added value,” she says. “Polo said, ‘Your prices are pretty high; what can you do?’ So our sales manager went to them and said, ‘You’ve got some accessories. We need the part that’s left over” — the shoulder flaps — “to go into those accessories.” Now Polo Ralph Lauren is selling purses made, at least partially, with excess from Howlett’s hides.

Good for her. The idea of what should be a luxury good and what shouldn’t remains an interesting one, though. Cheap meat and cheap leather certainly had a moment in the 20th century; but maybe such products should be expensive. Maybe the price we pay for them should reflect the toll they take, both on our health and the environment.

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