Leather and pollution

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readSep 6, 2017
Source : Google photo of leather dyeing in Fez , Morocco

Synopsis : No one really knows what goes into the production of leather .We only see that the effluent from the tanneries poison the river and kill the fish and wildlife so the blog explores the possibilities of non leather alternatives that can reduce the very harmful pollution and save our waterways.

The primitive man did not wear shoes in prehistoric times because he was more akin to animals than human. His needs were simple that did not include shoes. But later when he started to hunt for animals for food, the skins came in handy and perhaps it was the women who first thought of making shoes out of animal skins to protect the feet so the moccasins were born.

The native Americans were expert is making moccasins and made it so comfortable that one could not feel if he was wearing them. It was made of very soft skins that they learned how to soften using plants extracts that had tannin. Even today the moccasins are considered to be the most comfortable footwear and stylish too.

The animal skins and pelts were used primarily for making clothes to protect them from the cold weather but later the skins were used for various other purposes like making bags to carry water, to make hats, to make cover for their tents and numerous other uses. Early Egyptians made use of air filled goat skins to float stones down the river.

Even today you will see the donkeys carrying the leather bags full of water in Sudan in Africa and in other countries. I used to call them remote controlled donkeys because once loaded with water bags, they headed toward to village by themselves. May be they were eager to unload themselves so they trotted on without any urging from the urchins who were given the task.

I had one leather bag made from the goat skin in Sudan when I was working in the Western part of Darfur because I thought that I should always carry a bag full of water tied to the front of my vehicle just in case. In Algeria they use sheep skin bags to keep water that naturally cools hung from a tree.

But the story of shoes goes back a long way. In ancient religious texts of all religions, you will find people wearing handmade shoes of some kind. Some were exquisitely made with decorations and tough leather soles for men while the women wore more feminine types also very well made.

African king Mutesa in Uganda ordered all citizens to wear shoes back in 1800s and punished those who did not have shoes. He was a tyrant extraordinaire but his people all wore hand woven fancy cotton robes and handmade shoes while in other parts of Africa people went barefoot and nearly naked in those days.

As usual, the Chinese were at the forefront of designing and making wonderful shoes for men although they ignored the women who had to bind their feet to look pretty. They had strange notions of what was beautiful until Mao Tse Tung put an end to the feet binding. Women wished he was born long time ago.

At first people did not know how to tan leather except perhaps the Native Americans so the shoes they made were hard and caused blisters in the feet. In Indian villages they still make such shoes out of raw hide and soak it in oil for months to make it soft. They call it panahi but they are still tough to wear.

The ancient Indians made wooden shoes called Kharam that perhaps the Dutch copied later but believe me when I say that the Kharams are the most uncomfortable footwear ever designed by man so no one should in this day and age even think of wearing them. It is a punishment that I suffered when young during the thread ceremony to make me a Brahmin.

The poor people are innovative to say the least and developed use of discarded motor tires and made sandals out of it. I bought one in a market in the Philippines one day and realized that it made my legs sore because they were heavy so I happily gave it away to make someone else sore.

So the shoe industry is a big industry because everyone needs shoes of some kind these days so there are many manufacturers of shoes worldwide to supply the needs of common people. There are designers of shoes whose sole job is to invent new styles and designs that are appealing and has a market value.

There are shoes for all purposes. There are sport shoes, shoes for ballerinas, shoes for gentlemen and ladies for special occasions, shoes for children, for teen agers, orthopedic shoes for the aged and shoes for the common people. There are shoes that cost hundreds of dollars made of very costly crocodile leathers or exotic animals and there are shoes that you are I would be proud to wear and show off. The fancy shiny shoes are always a show off so vain men and women who tend to show off are particularly fond of them.

One woman in The Philippines collected over three thousand pairs of fancy shoes because she could never get tired of collecting them but most people are not crazy and are happy with a few sturdy pairs.

Now the shoe industry has found new ways to make money out of reluctant shoe buyers by making shoes out of rubber, clothes, canvas, mixed materials and even nylon or polyester materials or rami fibers so there is a wide variety of shoes in the market.

People laughed when I bought a pair of Bata shoes in India for 50 Rupees in 1967. It was called the Ambassador shoes and was indeed very well made. People did not buy Ambassador Shoes because it was considered so expensive that only rich people wore them. Bata Shoe Company is well known for its quality shoes although a bit short on style. Now it is quite unthinkable to buy such shoes for 50 Rupees anywhere.

I met a fellow once on a flight somewhere who said that he was the manager of the Hushpuppies shoes in South India where they operated a big factory. It was because India produces high quality leather and the cost of labor is cheaper than other countries so there are many international companies making shoes in India for export.

This is the trend now. The international shoe companies manufacture shoes where the leather supply is unlimited and cheap and where the labor force is well trained and willing to work for low wages making them huge profit in the process.

When I was a student in California, I saw that the agricultural students wore cowboy boots so I also bought one although not as fancy as the ones they wore. These cow boy boots were hand tooled and were so well made that they cost a great deal of money that someone like me could not afford so I bought a pair of well-made boots for 15 dollars. But we had a naughty dog in our house that belonged to a hippie that found my new boots and chewed it up really well.

I have since then never invested in shoes expensive or not and get by wearing slippers all year round. I do have a very nice pair of sturdy leather shoes that I wear only once a year for a day and put it back in storage. The only problem is that if you do not wear shoes the whole year then your feet will not adjust to the confinement of shoes well and swell up.

The downside of the leather shoe industry:

Now let us consider the downside of the leather industry for a minute. We do not care how the leather is made, where it is made and how many animals are killed to obtain the leather. We do not care how the leather industry pollutes the environment and how it poisons the water sources because no one goes to the factory to see how the leather is made and tanned. We do not know how hides are processed into leather and what dangerous chemicals are used to tan them.

We only see the beautiful shiny shoes in the shoe shops and buy a pair to show off to our friends. But this industry has a terrible down side to it that very few people know about or care about. If you go to Kanpur which has lots of tanneries along the Ganga River in North India, you will notice that the river there is much polluted with the effluents of the tanneries that discharge their wastes into the river without any restriction. It kills the fish and the wild life and poisons the river water with its chemicals they use to tan and process leather.

One fellow I knew who worked in such a tannery got terrible sores on his body from handling poisonous chemicals. The leather workers are poor and cannot pay for the treatment of sores that do not heal easily but they continue in this hazardous trade because they need to make a living.

If you go to Fez in Morocco, you will see hundreds of vats full of poisonous dyes of various colors that people dip their leathers in to color and tan them. They make beautiful leather for the shoe industry or for other uses like the hand bags and suitcases made by Louis Vuitton and others but they pay a price with their health.

Now there are the artificial leathers that look like leather but are not made from animal skins so it can fool you if you do not know the difference. There is a great fake leather industry that sells all kinds of goods made of it and charges gullible people a good price who do not know the difference. But even these fake leather industries pollute the water and environment by dumping their chemical wastes.

The sport shoes that are mostly made of canvas, nylon fabrics and some artificial leather offer a good choice to those who want sport shoes. These shoes are bought even by people who are not into sports because they are comfortable and easy on the feet. Sure there are fake sport shoes like anything else but there is a market that offers numerous choices and designs that one can choose from.

Source : Google photo of fancy crocodile leather shoes.

The crocodile leather shoes are not for everybody because they are so expensive. Now there are commercial crocodile farms in the Philippines and in many other countries where they raise these animals purely for leather and make enormous profit. If you visit Vietnam or Cambodia, you can buy deer skin shoes in the market. I had a pair that one fellow in India took from me because he coveted it so much.

The shoes are made from animal hides so the shoe makers do not care if the hide comes from an endangered animal in countries where such animals are not protected by law. Now the endangered animal skins are used for making expensive fur coats, bags and shoes so there is a great danger to the rare species of animals that are killed just for the fur and the hide by illegal poachers.

I was once flying to Paris from Delhi when a co passenger showed me a tiger skin after taking off. When I asked how he was able to take it out of India where the sale of tiger skin is unlawful, he just winked and said that he had hidden it well and will ask someone in Paris to make a coat out of it. So these rare animals are killed and the skins sold to people who don’t care about the conservation so the number of endangered species are dwindling.

Source : Google photo of river pollution in India by tanneries.

What concerns me most is the pollution of river water and the soil with dangerous chemicals used by the tanneries that go on unabated and there are very few laws to protect the environment and the rivers. It is true that we need to wear shoes to protect our feet but does it have to come at such a price? Can the Government continue to allow these industries to go on polluting without any restriction and can the national water ways, streams and rivers be allowed to die just because of the demand of an industry that has other alternatives?

Can we someday wear shoes only made of other materials that are safer and less polluting than leather? I do not know the answer.



Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.