I love leather jackets. For years my prefered signature fashion item was a well worn vintage leather jacket. One that was picked up on Telegraph Avenue sometime before the first day of sixth grade and worn well into my freshman year of highschool. To choose that jacket I stood in front of a rack displaying a variety of black leather jackets and examined each one until I found the coolest. Honestly, it never once crossed my mind that that jacket was once a living animal. Nor how many animals it took to produce that rack of tanned and processed hide. I knew why people opted to wear fake leather, be it due to lifestyle choices or environmental reasons, but i’d always saw wearing the pure material to be more eco friendly, and personally cooler, then wearing the synthetic alternatives. However, on my recent trip to Morocco my father, stepmother and I were invited to tour a family run tanning facility located on the edge of the ancient city of Marrakesh. We were led by our guide through rough cobblestone streets then up to a small doorway that opened to reveal a small leather goods store. Inside bags, shoes, belts, and hides of all kinds were stacked in piles floor to ceiling. Some were raw while others were embroidered or crafted using bits of Moroccan rugs and hand woven designs. A young man came to meet us at the back of the shop who then led us out back to view the entire tanning process and tanning factory. The tanning factory was located in a courtyard at the back of the store. It was quite the surprise to find a fully functioning tanning facility complete with lime baths, brining tubs, and slaughtering houses right on the other side of a normal purse and shoe store that was located on an average looking cobblestone street, quite common for Marrakech. The young man that led the way began to explain the leather treatment process in loud, broken, english. Tanned hides lay baking in the sun around dark coloured pools that had been set into the ground. Men of all ages hopped around the chemical baths following narrow, hide covered paths that snaked around, and in some places over, the gray and red pools. A magnificent stench rose from the deep tubs, the putrid scent, which primarily reaked of blood, sulfur and chromium sulfate, filled the air. At the entrance of the factory we had each been given a sprig of mint which I at that moment clutched to my nose looking for even the slightest second of sensory relief. The main attraction seemed to be the pools themselves, which we were later informed were sometimes filled with different vibrant, organic colours used to dye the leather itself. However to the side of these pools sat rows of small huts that lined the edge of the courtyard which held even more visual wonders. Elderly men sat huddled around wooden looms where they had strung up large dry hides. Each had a mini scythe in hand and as we passed proceeded to sheer and scrape at the leather to smooth wear it down. Were were taken in a wide circle around the edge of the court yard, passing stinking vats of lime and brine, sleeping dogs, and sweaty workers. Each worker we passed greeted our young tour guide.”This my uncle!” shouted the young man, as we passed yet another elderly, balding employee. I watched as two grown men wrapped up in rubber overalls pulled themselves up out of a smelly pit, both grabbing the ends of a long wooden post that supported, yet bowed under, the weight of not one but two large hides. Our guide then explained how this tanning factory had belonged to his family for many years. Generations of his family and even friends had worked in this very same tannery, learning the trade and making what they could of a simple yet incredibly hard life. I watched as the two men who had just hoisted themselves out of the deep pools of lime and other putrid chemicals began climbing back into the pit accompanied by two more brand new hides. Looking around at the crude pits and tired workers I began to wonder how the conditions of this tannery compared to those of the tanneries back in the U.S.
My first thoughts were that buying from and supporting a family owned tannery based in Morocco would be more local if not more sustainable than buying from a largely industrial tannery located in the U.S.
However as I stood in the middle of this smelly, and slightly chaotic treating process I began to wonder which industry was actually safer and better managed. A quick search on google and I was quickly showed the stark differences and even more surprising similarities. If you were to google leather tanneries in the U.S. and check the related photos that came up, then you’d see similar processes to those the Moroccan tanneries use. As I had seen first hand in Morocco, you’d also see muddy basins cut into the floor of tanneries in Missouri and Cincinnati. While these facilities did seem more mechanized and modern, the chemicals used and time it took to cure the leather was the same as it was in Morocco.
Lime was still used in large vats to de-hair and cure the hide, and chromium sulfate was still used to help brine and preserve the hides. However while much of the same processes are used in both tannery industries, the after care and disposal methods of the used chemical detergents and waters are very different in each country due to contrasting environmental views, laws, and regulations.
The leather industry in American today is a multibillion dollar industry that dates back to the colonial era. This industry operates primarily off of cattle hide, and exports the majority of its unfinished products to countries like India, China, and East Asia, however, it still makes a lot of product within American borders. In America the tanning process, which takes many hours to complete, soaks the raw hides in a variety of different concentrations starting with a lime solution that de furs the hide.
After this the hide is moved to a brining pool which uses chromium sulfate to treat and preserve the hide. However new tanning developments have been made in the American market to include another approach to the brining method that doesn’t use chromium sulfate, this method is called vegetable tanning. This slightly more eco-friendly tanning process uses tannic acid instead of chromium sulfate to preserve and brine the hide, however this method has been proved to be less effective then the more chemical filled and traditional process. The American tanning industry must also be sure to comply with all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. These standards require that all American tanneries must control the pretreatment liquid used to cure the hides and not dispose of these liquids in public water disposal facilities and instead must privately dispose of these liquid pollutants.
Tanneries must also responsibly recycle any excess solid chromium waste and must stay aware of their air pollutant emission according to the 1990 clean air act. These three basic regulatory measures ensure that the American tanning industry will be environmentally safe and manageable for many years to come, and although it maybe more industrialized and less localized it is an industry that is very aware of its Co2 emission and water waste by product.
After finding so much information on the American leather industry and all of its efforts to be environmentally friendly I was half expecting to find similar readily available information for the Moroccan leather industry. I was sadly much mistaken.
Like in America the Moroccan leather industry is largely an export and tourist business. Lately the market has faced a great decline in public interest mostly due to fashion and lifestyle changes made by most modern western customers. However, throughout Morocco many family run tanneries still exist and operate on full capacity to meet the demands of foreign markets. Here in these facilities some environmental protection measures are taken, however they are not very regulated or enforced by local government authority. These small facilities are not required to dispose of their water or solid waste privately, which leads to many serious health complications for local neighbors and inhabitants.
Not much has been done to solve these health issues on either a local or national front, however there has been talk of putting restrictions on the amount of waste and liquid a tanning facility can dispose of in public areas. The greatest difference in the American and moroccan tanning facilities is that in Morocco one can slaughter the animals for hide on facility grounds, while in America the slaughtering of animals must be done in a separate facility due to health reasons. The other large difference between the industries is that in Moroccan workers are allowed to come into contact with the lime solution used to de fur the hides. Currently in America this process is strictly regulated to ensure the protection of each and every worker. While researching and comparing the tanning processes in each of these countries I found that while regulations and laws surrounding the industry may be stricter and better enforced in one country, neither are all that safe or environmentally friendly. No matter how you choose to dispose of these toxic chemicals or treat your workers who are dealing with these chemicals directly, you are still permitting the use of heavy chemicals in your citizens’ everyday lives.
Walking into that tannery was eye opening for me It gave me a real idea of what our simplehuman indulgences cause the earth and local environment to undergo long term. Why force our environment to undergo procedures and be affected by their byproducts when the product of these processes are nothing but conventional, fashionable retail and upholstery. I had to question my desire for such leather goods and if I should really put my luxury “needs” over the safety of our environment and fellow human beings. So I have decided to hang up my leather jacket and move on to more eco friendly fashionable materials such as cork leather (synthetic leather made entirely from the bark of cork oak trees) or hemp, and I hope that maybe you, dear reader, will consider joining me.
* All photos seen here have been taken by Christopher W. Kirkham and edited by Alice S. Kirkham, with the exception of the pictures portraying the American tanning industry which have been taken from grandma google herself. For more information and sourcing of the American industry photos please see the bibliography.
American Industries, Encyclopedia Of. “SIC 3111 LEATHER TANNING AND FINISHING.” Reference for Business, Reference for Business, http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/industries/Leather/Leather-Tanning-Finishing.html.
Economy, Commerce Of. “LEATHER.” Plan D’Accélération Industrielle 2014-2020 | Ministère De L’Industrie, Du Commerce, De L’Investissement Et De L’Economie Numérique, Moroccan Industrial Industry, http://www.mcinet.gov.ma/en/content/leather.
Stephens, Jess. “Traditional Moroccan Leather Tanneries – Fez.” Moroccan Bling, WordPress, 16 Aug. 2012, moroccanbling.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/traditional-moroccan-leather-tanneries-fez/.