Chrome Tanned Leather: The Hidden Cost of Cheap Hides

At Alta Andina, we craft our products by hand using only natural and recycled materials. While our materials include recycled plastic and upcycled cotton among others, we launched our first line of leather goods using only full grain, vegetable tanned leather. Our goal in launching our line of vegetable tanned leather products was twofold: Vegetable tanning perfectly illustrates our Andean supply chain. The natural tree tannins used to tan our leather are derived from quebracho and mimosa trees, both of which are native to the Andean region. Our leather is sourced, tanned, finished, then crafted by hand into finished products in Colombia. By eliminating Asia from our supply chain, and keeping our sourcing and production local to the Andes, we reduce the carbon footprint of our products by a factor of 10 when compared to mass produced, chrome tanned leather products. Check out our article on the environmental impact of our leather products to learn more. Secondly, starting with leather provided an opportunity to educate our clients about chrome tanning, and its destruction of the environment and people’s health. At Alta Andina, the health of the planet, the people who make our products, and our clients, is more important to us than higher profits. We believe by arming you with the detailed information about the chrome tanned leather industry, you’ll have the knowledge to vote with your dollars, and support companies that align with your values.

Chrome Tanned Leather Production

Chrome tanned leather accounts for an astonishing 90% of leather in the world. Chrome tanning was developed during the industrial revolution as a faster, cheaper alternative to vegetable tanning.Chrome tanning is a global environmental disaster and puts the health of millions of leatherworkers and ordinary citizens at risk. The chrome tanned leather industry has pushed the environmental degradation and human health risks of chrome tanning out of sight and out of the minds of its consumers. Developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, and China, with lax environmental regulations and safety protocols for workers, account for the majority of the chrome tanneries.

Tannery wastewater flowing into a river in Bangladesh

Toxins make their way into this water used for irrigation, swimming, cooking & bathing

Solid Waste & Wastewater Treatment 

Implementing proper waste treatment, both for wastewater and solid waste, is costly and only partially effective at eliminating the risk of environmental contamination. New technologies to treat wastewater, such as reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters, have been researched and proposed, but seldom implemented. Without proper treatment, “wastewater and solid waste from tanning operations often find their way into surface water, where toxins are carried downstream and contaminate water used for bathing, cooking, swimming and irrigation.” (1) 

How exactly do the chemicals from chrome tanning find their way into the ecosystem? The chemicals used in the tanning process make their way into soil which can make fields too toxic to grow food. Wastewater makes its way into rivers and farmland several ways, leaching toxic chemicals into the water table and therefore our food chain. 

Mud from under a tannery tainted blue from chrome powder. Source

Alarmingly, solid waste from tanneries is commonly used for animal feed and fertilizer. The reuse of this solid waste does nothing to remove the contaminants, it simply moves the chemicals directly into the chicken, fish, and farmland that are fed the toxic food. Chickens that are fed tannery waste tested in Bangladesh had levels of chromium between 40% and 1700% higher than the maximum recommended daily exposure according to the European Food Safety Authority. You don’t need to be a trained scientist to grasp the implications of using tannery waste as animal feed and fertilizer. These dangerous contaminants quickly come full circle back to human consumption. Once in the food chain and water supply, tannery waste “can incite respiratory problems, infections, infertility, and birth defects.”(11) By reusing solid tannery waste, hazardous toxins are passed from animals and land, to humans, and through humans to their offspring. The lasting impacts of these practices therefore become generational. Realistically speaking, if these chemicals have infiltrated farmland and the water table, the effects could be permanent, or at least significantly longer than a few generations. While authorities have tried to crack down on practices of using tannery waste in food supply and fertilizer, the industry remains largely in the shadows. Mohammad Alamgir, of the Department of Environment in Bangladesh states, “All the recycling plants are operating illegally as they do not have any licence. So this non-formal sector is difficult to regulate. There is a murky chain behind this tannery-scrap feed.” (10)

Chromium creates skin rashes and irritations for leatherworkers

Leatherworkers stand in pools of contaminated wastewater with no protection

Workers In The Chrome Tanned Leather Industry

Leatherworkers suffer greatly due to the pervasive disregard for their well being. Many leatherworkers express that they feel there is no other opportunity to create income for their families. The only choice is to bear the brunt of exposure to high levels of chromium and other toxic chemicals, despite the suffering they will undertake for a daily salary of a couple of dollars. In India, a leatherworker whose arms are permanently scarred from chemical exposure continues working in the tannery despite the pain, recounting “I have worked no more than ten days per month. If I work more, the itching starts. It is unbearable. […] But I need to work so my family can live.”(9) As a bare minimum, leatherworkers need protective equipment such as masks, boots, and gloves to properly protect themselves from exposure. But the reality of working in tanneries is that most leatherworkers “stand barefooted in litres of sulphuric acid and chrome-heavy waste water. No masks protect them from the fine chrome dust.” (9) There are a myriad of other health consequences leatherworkers face from working in tanneries, which include cancer, bronchitis, pneumonia, vision problems –– even permanent blindness.

This is why chrome tanned leather is referred to as wet blue

Wastewater and solid waste from chrome tanneries saturate this river in Bangladesh

Chrome Tanned Leather and Hexavalent Chromium (Chromium VI)

The health risks and skin irritations from chrome tanned leather go beyond the leatherworker, all the way to you, the consumer. Between 1 and 3% of the adult population worldwide is allergic to chromium III, which is present in all chrome tanned leather products, and will react to chrome tanned leather with serious skin irritation. Someone using a pair of chrome tanned leather gloves or sandals, for example, can develop rashes and sores. The European Union has researched the chrome tanned leather industry, and regulates its use for products that come in frequent contact with the skin, such as automobile interiors, furniture upholstery, and more. But the risk of skin irritation and rashes from chromium III are seemingly inconsequential when considering the risks to consumers and leatherworkers exposed to chromium VI. 

Chromium has two forms with an important distinction. Trivalent chromium, or chromium III, which we’ve been discussing, is benign to humans at low levels, but hazardous to leatherworkers who are exposed daily. Hexavalent chromium, or chromium VI, is a proven carcinogen that causes cancer, respiratory problems, and damage to internal organs. 

While hexavalent chromium is not used in leather tanning, chromium III is the main ingredient in chrome tanning, and can transform into chromium VI in several different ways. Chromium III becomes the dangerous chromium VI during the leather finishing process, when oils or waxes are applied. Once the leather is finished, this transformation can also occur during the manufacturing process if leather is heated or treated with friction when applying wax. The chromium III present in finished chrome tanned leather products turns into chromium VI with exposure to heat, sunlight, and oxygen. So if chromium VI is not formed in leather during the finishing or the manufacturing process, it is highly likely that it will form in your finished product through normal use. The European Union’s research into the chrome tanned leather market found “a considerable influence on the formation of chromium (VI) in leather could be attributed to ageing and UV irradiation.” When German regulators tested finished leather products for chromium VI between 2000 and 2006, “chromium (VI) was detected in more than half of 850 samples.”(8) Several studies are available backing up this research, for example, “in 2011, a small scale Danish study found that almost half of imported leather shoes and sandals contained chromium VI.” (5) It is possible as a consumer to avoid risking exposure to hexavalent chromium, but it requires a shift from the leather industry, and a commitment from consumers to vote with their dollars, and buy vegetable tanned leather products. Every purchase of a cheap, chrome tanned leather product reinforces the paradigm that consumers value low cost, over the effect their purchase has on the environment, the health of those who made it, and their own health. 

Shift The Broken Paradigm

When buying your leather products, consider some important questions. Am I buying chrome tanned leather or vegetable tanned leather? Do I know where the leather for this product came from, or who made the product? If a brand does not disclose the source of its materials, or its manufacturers, what are they hiding? Unfortunately, leather coming from places like Hazaribagh, Bangladesh makes its way into the global supply chain with a deafening silence and lack of transparency. Major brands hide behind leather buying associations, so that they can claim they do not know the original source of their leather. But big brands such as “Michael Kors, Timberland, Hugo Boss, C & J Clark America, Puma, and the Gap Inc. brand Banana Republic” (4) have been exposed for using leather that originates in places like Hazaribagh. As consumers become more aware of the issues surrounding chrome tanned leather, many brands “have statements on their websites espousing support for ethical sourcing, human rights, and sustainable manufacturing processes. But few disclose detailed information about their suppliers.” (4) It is one thing to claim your supply chain is ethical, and sustainable, but without transparency, what good are those words from companies who have already been caught red handed? 

Natural mimosa tannins used to make our vegetable tanned leather

Our Café leather hang drying after being dyed with natural anilines

Our Bottom Line 

At Alta Andina, we are committed to conserving the environment of the Andean region. This includes protecting the health of the human beings in our supply chain, the health of our clients, and minimizing our environmental impact. Companies and brands who use chrome tanned leather and do not disclose the source of their materials are making their values and priorities clear. We are proud to be transparent about our entire supply chain, including our leather supplier, Curtiembres Del Valle. By highlighting the source of our leather, we empower our clients to make informed purchasing decisions, and help shift consumer demand and industry standards toward responsibly sourced and manufactured products.