Where Does Leather Come From?

Leather is recorded in the earliest activities of man, and shoes and bags have been discovered that are over five thousand years old.
The basic necessity to protect feet, and to carry food or weapons brought about the invention of moccasins and hunting bags.
Evidence of these has been found at archeological sites in North and South America, and throughout the Middle-East.

In the first instance, cattle are thought to have been domesticated in Southern Turkey around 10,000 years ago.

These were valued for their milk, and also provided meat and ultimately their skins.

Besides cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were also domesticated and produced leather.
Other sources include camel, bison, deer, oxen and yak.

More exotically the skins of many fish can be processed, as well as snake, crocodile, alligator, ostrich and kangaroos: many of these are highly valued in the modern fashion industry for clothing, accessories and shoes.

In the present day, those first small herds in Anatolia have spread to all parts and now total some 1.4 billion head!

Concentrating on cattle as the main commercial source, the bovine population numbers of the top twelve countries is set out below.
These figures are drawn from the 2012 estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization, and our thanks for these.



India 326

Brazil 217

China 107

USA 91

Pakistan 68

Ethiopia 55

Argentina 41

Mexico 33

Colombia 29

Sudan 28

Australia 28

Tanzania 22

Notably Australia, Argentina and Brazil share the distinction of having more cattle than people!
Most animals are raised primarily for food, meat and dairy products, although a small proportion are for draft use on the land or for transporting goods.

Once the animal has been slaughtered the hides represent about 5% of the value of the carcase.
The final usage of the leather will be mainly for footwear, around 65%, followed by furniture and upholstery [15%] clothing [15%] and last of all leathergoods [5%].

Hides are tanned initially to a “wet salt” stage, which means the skin has been scraped free of hair and processed in liquid to soften and preserve it.
At this point hides can be transported to other tanneries for the final processing and finishing, often being exported.

The production figures show a big variation from the population statistics above, again drawn from FAO sources.

WET SALTED LEATHER PRODUCTION [ thousand tonnes ] 2012 estimates.

USA 839

Brazil 796

China 739

India 431

Argentina 385

Mexico 176

Australia 174

Russian Fed 164

Sudan 142

Pakistan 130

France 122

Colombia 109

Italy 104

The USA dominates  production, followed closely by Brazil, China and India.

China overshadows the market, importing 1037 million tonnes of wet salted leather to add to its own production.
The other country that imports a notable amount is Italy, at 490 million tonnes.
These two countries are of course major production centres for finished leather articles.

China made 1966 million pairs of shoes in 2011, followed by Mexico with 288 m, Italy 232 m, and Brazil and India on 188 million pairs each.

What the statistics above reveal is that leather often moves round the world, in the process of tanning, and manufacture and delivery to the consumer.

That leather briefcase made in China may have been manufactured from hides tanned in Brazil, from a cowhide that was imported from Colombia – and then finally sold in a store in America.

Whenever the question is asked “where did the leather come from?” the only safe answer is from an animal hide!


Leather Footwear Imported into Nigeria 2013.

All aspects of the leathergoods trade world-wide are of interest, and a recent report about Nigerian Footwear has just come onto our desk.

Despite a total ban on the import of any leathergoods, a senior government source has revealed that at 90% of the footwear sold in Nigeria comes from China and Morocco!

The country does have ample leather resources, with modern tanneries and a livestock base to provide the hides.

The question is why this complete contradiction can occur?


Unfortunately, Nigeria rates very high in the international listings of corrupt business practice, and China is not unknown for exploiting merchant opportunities.

That’s the polite way of putting it. But it’s like water down a hill.

The product is good, it’s in demand, and so it sells, no matter what government policy exists.


Remember the old anecdote of the two shoe salesmen who are sent to Africa to open new business.

As they get off the plane and go into the airport building, they both look around and make for the phones to call their boss.

The first salesman says ” I’m on the first flight back, nobody wears shoes here”.

In the booth next door the other one yells ” Hey boss, this is fantastic! nobody’s got any shoes here! ”

As ever, the opportunity in business may be obvious and positive to one party, and be completely dismissed by another.

That’s what makes it interesting.