Can Leather Be Ethical and Eco-Friendly?
The collapsed Dhaka garment factory has cast a harsh spotlight on the lack of safety protections for workers in Bangladesh’s clothing industry, the second largest in the world after China’s. Bangladesh is also a top exporter of leather for luxury goods to countries including China, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. But the country’s tanneries, in which workers are daily exposed to toxic chemicals and permanent injury from antiquated machinery, are nearly devoid of safeguards according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The human rights abuses in the tanneries are just one ethical issue raised by leather production. Most leather comes from cows and the same concerns about the treatment of cattle raised to be food have to be considered. In what conditions was the animal who’s now your shoes raised? How was he or she slaughtered?
Bangladesh’s Tanneries are Toxic to Humans and the Environment
HRW’s 101 page report issued last October makes for grim reading. Men, women and children (defined as those under 18) work seven days a week in tanneries in Hazaribagh outside Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka. They handle hazardous chemicals often without gloves, masks or other protective equipment. They receive little or no instruction to operate powerful machinery. Teenage workers use razorblades to cut the skins; should they become injured, there is next to no compensation nor is there job protection if they are too sick to work. Women and girls report being paid comparatively less than men; many workers are temporary and have had no education. Children as young as 11 were found working in the tanneries.
As you can imagine, from working in such conditions and with dangerous chemicals including chromium, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde and bleach, the workers suffer from a number of health problems such as skin and respiratory diseases. Many report a constant feeling of itching and are described as having “prematurely aged, discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, and rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, and nausea.”
90 to 95 percent of Bangladesh’s tanneries are located in Hazaribagh and its residents also report numerous health problems. The tanneries generate a steady stream of waste, including about 75 metric tons of solid matter — bones, leather shavings, salts — a day and more than twice that at times of peak production. Effluent from the tanneries containing animal flesh, dissolved hair, fats, lime, chemicals and heavy metals flows through Hazaribagh’s open gutters and into the Burigunda River, which supplies water to Dhaka.
Government officials have claimed for years that they will relocate the tanneries to a site in Savar, about 12.5 miles west of Hazaribagh. Representatives of HRW visited the site in 2012 and report seeing no signs of any construction.
Can We Do Anything to Improve the Tanneries?
Bangladesh’s government leveled fines against two tanneries in April for not having effluent-treatment plants. As a senior official in Bangladesh’s Environment Department told Human Rights Watch, “There is no monitoring and no enforcement in Hazaribagh.” The country exports $663 million in leather and leather goods but has yet to take measures to protect the safety of workers.
HRW is seeking to press the international leather industry to address the human rights abuses in the Hazaribagh tanneries, but frankly, the extent of the human rights abuses in the tanneries and of the environmental pollution (Hazaribagh is said to be one of the most polluted places in the world) raise serious questions about the leather industry as a whole.
Is There Such a Thing as Eco-friendly, Sustainable Leather?
If you buy leather products from shoes to a wallet made by a major manufacturer, it is virtually impossible to trace where the leather came from. For instance, many products are said to be made from “Italian-made leather.” But the reality is that the cows who end up as a Gucci handbag usually were from another continent, such as Argentina. Gucci has released some products that, in the spirit of letting consumers know about the supply chain, come with a “passport” about the birth and “history” (including the slaughter, one presumes) of a cow raised in a deforestation-free zone.
In 2005, Nike, Adidas and Timberland helped to found the Leather Working Group (LWG). Manufacturers who are members say they source leathers from tanneries that use environmentally friendly methods. While most tanneries (certainly those in Bangladesh) produce chrome-tanned leather in which 250 chemicals are involved, some leather makers are “greening” their process, seeking to use less water or solar-powered energy. Vegetable-tanned leather is made via an ancient process that treats leathers without formaldehyde and heavy medals; chrome tanning takes far less time and produces leather that is more pliable and water repellent (clearly all those chemicals do something).
If you prefer to avoid using any products originating from animals, there are options that are not the vinyl fake leathers or pleather that were some of the forgettable offerings of the 1970s. “Guilt-free, animal-cruelty free” fake leathers can be made from textiles such as bark cloth, which come from the bark of mutuba trees in Uganda, and microfiber made from reconstituted post-industrial material. Others are cork fabric or cork leather, made from the shavings from the bark of the oak tree and (believe it or not) paper (some made from recycled cardboard).
Scientists are also at work creating “lab-grown leather” using similar techniques as they’ve been developing to make in vitro meat. Livestock cells could be harvested from the lab-grown meat, multiplied in a bioreactor and then fused together, perhaps via 3-D printing.
Or, you can simply not bother with leather substitutes and look for products made from cotton and canvas, some of which are organically produced.
Photo from Thinkstock