There are several methods that are used when tanning leather, and sadly, within the fashion industry, the most popular is chrome tanning. Many brands use this cheapest, mass produced and most toxic form of leather tanning, as it is a much quicker process than the traditional vegetable tanning process. The result being the use of chromium salts that are unsustainable for the environment and harmful to not only the people and places that make it, but to you too.
More than 90% of the world’s leather is chrome tanned. The method was devised in 1858 as tanneries looked for ways to speed up traditional methods and to save money. Basically, the chrome tanning process is usually achieved by placing hides into acidic baths which consist of a mix of chemicals, which in most cases means that the leather is no longer a natural product. These baths create masses of toxic wastewater, that when left untreated, cause huge environmental and health impacts.
Foamy waste water from tanneries makes its way into the local farmland. Image by Sean Gallagher, India 2013.
The main environmental threat involves the dumping of liquid and solid waste that contains chromium leftover from the treatment, along with many other hazardous mixtures. This dumping is common practice in regions that have pretty much non-existent workplace and environmental protection regulations, they also happen to be the primary regions where leather is tanned, and labour rates are cheap – China, India and Bangladesh.
The human impact
The human health problems that occur when chromium filled waste is dumped into regional water systems include respiratory, liver, kidney and skin problems, infections, infertility, and even birth defects. It is a carcinogenic and indestructible chemical which can also initiate a number of serious cancers in animals throughout our food chain.
Chamilal, 55, stands outside his farmhouse in a small village near the city of Kanpur. He is one of many local farmers who suffer from serious skin conditions, believed to have been brought about by contact with toxic waste water from local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.
There are ways to alleviate these impacts with some advanced recovery techniques, but these are very costly, and involve high effort and time to be correctly implemented, but most of all money. And in regions that don’t have a lot of money for environmental protection, regulations are easily sidestepped. To discover the true cost for the workers involved, watch this short film by Sean Gallagher.
On the banks of the Ganges, children play in a field of leather scraps, many of them soaked in chromium and lye. Image courtesy of National Geographic.
The alternative – vegetable tanning
Vegetable tanning of leather is an ancient method and has very minimal negative environmental impact. It consists of repeatedly soaking skins in natural tanning solutions and is a slow and complex process. It usually takes a minimum of 30 to 60 days to finish and requires the skill, patience, care, and supervision of skilled craftsmen.
Most plants contain tannins, especially in the bark but also in leaves, roots or even fruits. Those with a high concentration are useful for tanning hides. Many different plants and trees have been in use for leather tanning over thousands of years such as oak, chestnut, acacia or wattle, mangrove bark or birch.
Colours that can be achieved with vegetable tanning.
Due to the careful tanning process and the use of natural tannins, vegetable tanned leather products will develop a rich and beautiful patina, and will become suppler to the touch with time and use. They won’t crack or dry out and have impressive ageing and longevity. The leather is a thick and malleable leather, making it ideal for products like well-made, durable bags and belts.
Your vegetable tanned handbag can last multiple lifetimes and the leather is generally biodegradable. Chrome tanned leathers, on the other hand, are not biodegradable and cannot be recycled. Chrome tanned handbags often carry a chemical smell and won’t wear well or last very long, and can crack after just a few months of use. Companies that compromise on the quality and production of their leather products, when turning to mass produced chrome tanned leather for cost cutting purposes, are greatly reducing the lifespan of the product.
Vegetable tanned leather does take longer to produce, making for a slightly more expensive product, but this careful, handmade process adds to the richness and exclusivity of vegetable tanned leather, which is in great contrast to the mass-produced chrome tanned leather.
Along with the environmental and health impacts that are involved, would you like to carry a chrome covered leather bag next to your skin every day?
Minimizing negative environmental impact and a responsibility towards our ecological footprint is at the heart of Balincourt’s values. The entire range of Balincourt bags are made with vegetable tanned leather and are only ever packaged with reusable and recyclable materials. Working towards building change in the fashion industry one step at a time and redefining the perception of eco fashion.