Understand the associated responsibilities of leather making

Redwood comment
Published:  10 August, 2016
Mike Redwood

I was told off the other day for not having been to Bangladesh. I had just finished presenting a view on our industry that had two themes. I argued that cows are good for the planet and that leather is one of the best materials to use from a sustainability point of view. 

The question about Bangladesh arose because it was argued that had I seen first-hand the wastewater from the tanneries in Hazaribagh I would moderate my positive comments about leather. I found this curious as you cannot judge a material based on a tiny minority of producers who ignore international norms, local laws and frankly common morality in their production methods.

Around the world we have a number of places where small and medium sized tanneries, and the authorities who manage them, think they can pour untreated effluent onto the land and into streams and rivers. They see no problem making workers go barefoot and without any protective gear. There can hardly be any job in the world where lives are safe if safety regulations are deliberately ignored. I have often said that where it is happening the leather industry must do everything it can to stop such activity, and in Bangladesh at last we do have the effluent treatment plant being built in Savar and some sign of light at the end of the tunnel. 

At the same time we must look hard at ourselves. Why, year-after-year, have we kept buying part processed and finished leathers from factories that are like this? At a meeting in Düsseldorf two weeks ago we were told leather was too expensive. Perhaps, but so often the cheap leather gets its pricing structure from places like this who chose to skip their responsibilities for waste and workers. Leather is not a necessity in any product area and is only suited for certain product types and price ranges.

And of course all this does weaken the argument for using chromium as a tanning chemical. Chromium is a good material to tan with if used correctly but is a liability if handled incorrectly. If I was selling chromium, and a few other chemicals, for tanneries I would be working harder to ensure that any purchaser fully understood the associated responsibilities and dangers associated with its use. I was astonished to see bags of chromium when I last walked round the ancient tannery in the market at Marrakesh. Like Hazaribagh this is another place without the capability to use it safely.

Plastic is a Design Failure

When talking about safety and sustainability when we look at the materials that are replacing leather they are even worse. For decades workers in the Wenzhou area and Lishui traded higher wages for an early death and other severe health problems when using DMF to make "pleather" or and even a cursory look at the other plastics made in the world confirms the recent quote from Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, that "plastic is a design failure".

They work briefly in products then cause untold harm for hundreds of years. Well-made leather is quite the reverse.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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