Leather Tanning

Environmental Impact of the Leather industry and Eco Friendly alternatives

Leather is probably one of the oldest materials known to humans and throughout the ages we have honed the craft, making increasingly intricate and durable items. About four years ago I travelled to Morocco on holiday and had the opportunity to get a first hand glimpse of locals beating, drying and tanning leather. The largess of the industry really surprised me and the impact of the process on the environment was finally, visually, revealed to me. All the practicality and aesthetic beauty was, to me, not worth this cost.


Tourists hardly wander outside the medina walls. Life over the beautiful city walls is a stark comparison, with many living a basic and arduous life. Along the road out of the medina, amongst the deteriorating walls, I met several men beating cow hides in the afternoon sun. The physical labour was impressive and I became curious about how locals made a living in this industry. This curiosity attracted me to Fez, where many of Morocco’s tanneries are located. I visited one of three big tanneries in this ancient city. 

Fez is the third biggest city in Morrocco, and is located around the river Fez. Referred to as the country’s cultural capital, it attracts numerous visitors. Many will also visit one of its tanneries, known for their sprawling round vessels filled with dye. Under this impressive and eerily beautiful setting, lurking beneath the murky pools and hanging pungent in the air, is the polluting chemicals and run-offs laden with chromium that seep into the river and contaminate the soil. 

Leather tanning is the conversion of raw animal hide into the leathery material we are so used to, and as such, is the most important stage of the leather-making process. Using a considerable amount of chemicals such as trivalent chromium, alum, syntans (man-made chemicals), formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and heavy oils, a series of chemical reactions bind the proteins on the hide -namely collagen- stopping the material from biodegrading. Not only are the harsh chemicals abrasive to living cells and organisms, the process results in a large amount of liquid and solid waste. Therefore this step has been dubbed “dirty technology.”

The environmental impacts are numerous to say the least. A large amount of waste products result from tanning. High levels of salts, lime sludge, sulphides, acids and heavy metals (chromium compounds- considered hazardous to health) both in solid and liquid form, pollute the surrounding environment and seep into the river. Leather production has the greatest impact on eutrophication, which is an ecological problem resulting from run-off waste reaching a water source, producing an overgrowth of plant life in the water, depleting the oxygen and suffocating animals. Hypoxic zones, or dead zones are a result of pollutants seeping into rivers and lakes. 


As well as causing serious ecological harm, the chemicals are also devastating for human health. This is not limited to the workers, but the nearby residents are adversely affected too. Many who live and work in the vicinity die of cancer, possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals used. Arsenic, linked with lung cancer, is a common tannery chemical. Often when hazardous processes are moved from developed nations to developing nations, the rules and regulations are laxed so corporations can benefit from the capital saved. Workers are garbed in mismatched PPE, some in just household marigold gloves and often complain of medical problems related to their labour and sadly have a lower life expectancy. Over half the world’s supply of leather comes from the developing world. It is easy then to turn a blind eye on this large and unsustainable industry.

I have not even begun to write about the environmental impact of rearing the livestock needed for the raw material. Along with the clearing of forests, the water required by livestock place a huge burden on the supply of clean water in developing rural regions. Exasperated by the South’s high temperatures, many households are required to ration much needed water. 

This may all seem hugely overwhelming but the huge environmental costs have led many to search out and create their own plant-based leather.  These leathers are classed as bio-materials. They can be made from a variety of plants and are an alternative to synthetic leather made from polyurethane (PU), a plastic and another leading cause in global warming and environmental pollution.Plant-based leather could effectively reduce and even replace our dependency on leather for durable, waterproof goods such as handbags, belts and shoes. This includes cactus leather, apple leather, pineapple leather and even corn leather. Each has its own advantages since they can either grow in harsh conditions with little water (cactus) or use the waste recovered from another industry (apple leather) to create durable, beautiful and organic alternatives. Ref- article on vegan leathers

Each leather is made using their own unique formula. Essentially though, they are washed and crushed to form a pulp. The pulp is then dried over a period of time, treated with non-toxic chemicals to develop the plant proteins and dyed to produce a variety of colours and textures. Using raw materials that are either environmentally friendly and have a very small carbon footprint, or waste products from other industries, the plant-based leather market is revolutionising the fashion industry. 

The bio-materials market is developing rapidly and with a focus on slow fashion. Many small to medium sized companies have invested in making cruelty-free and plastic-free leather goods, placing an emphasis on creating sustainable and durable products. They are looking to turn the tide on fashion’s unhealthy dependency on animal hides as well as throwaway items- the seasonal items that fall apart at the seams. But choosing quality over quantity is not what we are accustomed to. It is an uphill battle that requires us to change our shopping habits and shift the emphasis from easy accessibility to considered one-time purchases made to last longer than the season’s hottest trends. 

Plant-based leather is part of a larger movement towards clean, responsible fashion and one day these alternatives could become mainstream and perhaps the streets of Fez and its river will be clear of harsh and toxic chemicals.

We have an opportunity to marry old traditional crafts with new innovations and this makes me excited about what the future could hold. 


Image courtesy of: Carlos Ibanez @unsplash

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