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Chrome Tanned Leather: Environmental Impact

Unfortunately, 90% of leather in the world is chrome tanned. During the industrial revolution, the the leather industry moved away from vegetable tanned leather and turned to faster, cheaper, chemical alternatives, mostly chromium, for the tanning process. The globalization of the leather industry has pushed the environmental degradation and human health risks out of sight and out of mind. Developing countries like Bangladesh and India bear the burden of chrome tanneries.

Beyond pushing the human problem of chrome tanned leather production out of sight, the leather industry works in developing countries because there is little to no regulation of solid waste and wastewater, making the process significantly cheaper. 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) The chemicals used in the tanning process thus make their way into soil which can make fields too toxic to grow food.

Hazaribagh, a neighborhood of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is a microcosm of the global problem with chrome tanned leather. It is estimated that every day, 5.8 million gallons of untreated wastewater makes it way into the Buriganga river, once the main water source for the capital cities’ 7 million people. (6)

Leather Tanning and Hexavalent Chromium

The European Union banned the use of chrome-tanned leather in automobiles. This should spark some concern about why chrome tanned leather still accounts for 90% of the world’s leather supply. There are serious, documented health risks associated with hexavalent chromium.

The risks of Hexavalent Chromium to the environment, leatherworkers and the end user of the chrome tanned leather product are frightening. Chromium VI is a proven carcinogen that causes cancer, respiratory problems, and damage to internal organs, mostly for leather workers with high exposure risks. Someone using a pair of chrome tanned leather gloves or sandals, for example, can develop rashes and sores. In fact, between 1 and 3% of the adult population worldwide is allergic to chromium and will react to chrome tanned leather with serious skin irritation.

Chromium, in terms of how it relates to the leather industry, has two forms with an important distinction. Trivalent Chromium, or Chromium III is almost benign to humans, and can be found occurring naturally in soil, animals and plants. However, “under certain production and storage circumstances Chromium III can transform to Chromium VI.” (2) More specifically, “chromium VI compounds can be formed in leather through the oxidation of chromium III compounds, which are added in some tanning processes to crosslink the collagen subunits in order to increase leather’s dimensional stability, as well as its resistance to mechanical action and heat.” (3)

Thus, what begins as Chromium III can actually become Chromium VI through normal production and or storage practices used industry wide, and even simple heat exposure.(6) Leather workers who are exposed repeatedly to Chromium III, having to physically get in vats of Chromium III to retrieve hides, have been found to have serious respiratory problems and skin irritations. Too often, workers are barefoot, without gloves, masks and other protective equipment.

Where does your leather come from? Do brands tell you? Unfortunately, leather coming from places like Hazaribagh makes it way into the global supply chain with a deafening silence and lack of transparency. Big brands have been known to side step the question and hide behind leather buying associations that make broad claims about not sourcing leather from places like Hazaribagh, yet not disclosing enough detail so that consumers can make informed buying decisions. Let’s face it, if a company is not fully transparent about their supply chain, what are they hiding?

At Alta Andina, we are proud to highlight our source for leather. Using only a mix of Quebracho and Mimosa to tan our leather, two tree species native to the Andes, means our leather isn’t damaging the environment, isn’t dangerous for those creating it, or for you. Best of all, we use the highest quality leather on the market, starting with the selection of the hides, and using only full grain leather.

Sources:

  1. http://www.worstpolluted.org/projects_reports/display/88
  2. https://www.bureauveritas.com/wps/wcm/connect/bv_com/group/home/about-us/our-business/cps/whats-new/bulletins/eu_restricts_chromiumvi_leather_articles
  3. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:JOL_2014_090_R_0001_01&from=EN
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_tenuiflora
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebracho_tree
  6. https://undark.org/article/leather-tanning-bangladesh-india/