Utne Blogs > Environment

The True Cost of Leather

by Jake Mohan 


Tags: Environment, leather industry, manufacturing, pollution, Bangladesh, organic, Ecologist,

leather For some clotheshorses, the ethical quandry of leather fashions is implicit: It’s a dead animal’s skin. But that’s only part of the story. While leather goods don’t carry quite the stigma that furs do, perhaps they should, especially when one learns the cost of leather production in terms of human health and environmental damage.

A recent article in the Ecologist (not available online) profiles the leather industry in Hazaribagh, a city in the Dhaka region of Bangladesh. Thanks to lax environmental regulations, the city is able to provide leather at lower costs than its Western counterparts, making its tanneries an economic boon to the city. But the cost of production is lower precisely because environmental regulations are lower.

Describing the leather manufacturing process at length, the Ecologist implicates the city’s tanneries with vivid descriptions of their environmental impact:

Electric-blue rivers of effluent gushing out of every tannery wall; a frothy, noxious cocktail of lead, chrome syntans, mercury, cadmium, and corrosive acids that creeps along the open drains under the stilted homes of neighbouring slums, and then straight into the Dhaka’s primary river, the Buriganga. 

Communities that once depended on the river for fishing have been decimated, while toxic tanning chemicals are slowly killing the city’s inhabitants:

Large numbers of the 8,000 to 12,000 workers at the tanneries suffer from gastrointestinal and dermatological diseases... SEDH (Bangladesh’s Society for Environment and Human Development) claims that 90 percent of tannery workers will be dead by the age of 50.

As with other consumer goods, there is an alternative for the conscientious: Organic Leather, in California, for example, promises leather derived from humanely slaughtered animals and tanned without toxic chemicals. Of course, these methods raise the product’s price significantly and cannot be conducted on Hazaribagh’s massive scale. It’s unlikely that real change can happen in Bangladesh’s tanneries until leather buyers worldwide, and especially in Europe, stop feeding the market for cheaper leather manufactured under such conditions.

(Thanks to Kari Volkmann-Carlsen for additional research.)

Image by Frances Voon, licensed by Creative Commons.