The Fashion Industry’s Leather Obsession Is Harming More Than Animals

Tanning chemicals are polluting entire cities and communities, depleting basic necessities for a healthy life.
May 29, 2015·
Kelly Bryant is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer covering fashion, pop culture, and parenting for a variety of national publications.

If you choose to buy a bag, shoes, or another item made of leather, you are purchasing something that has environmental and ethical consequences that are much larger than just the animal product.

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Fashion documentary The True Cost traveled to Kanpur, India, located along the country’s holiest river, the Ganges, as it has become India’s leather export capital. Images of the 50 million liters of toxic waste poured into this revered body of water from local tanneries are difficult to wrap one’s head around. When you consider that heavy chemicals such as chromium are used to treat leather and are being absorbed into the community’s drinking water and farmland, it’s enough to make you think twice about that next leather purchase.

Western brands are snapping up the material produced in this area because the demand for cheap leather is high, and they’re thousands upon thousands of miles away from the impact the production is having on human health and the environment.

“People in that area are in the tight grip of tannery pollution,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of Eco Friends, an environmental organization whose most pressing issue is protecting the Ganges. “The local environment is contaminated; soil is contaminated. The only drinking water source—groundwater—is contaminated with chromium. Agricultural produce, even vegetables and salad items produced there. People’s health is affected. People have skin rashes, boils, even numbness in the limbs. People have stomach ailments; they may have cancers also.”

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The film includes an interview with a Kanpur man whose wife and daughter have both suffered from jaundice as a result of the pollution, forcing the family to use up their savings to fight the condition and other ailments.

“You can have the best of materials moving into the high-end fashion market in Milan or Paris or London, but there has been so much work that has gone behind it, and so much chemicals have gone into it,” says Satish Sinha, associate director of Toxics Link, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to providing toxics information to the public. “We are only looking at that point in time into the finished product. We need to step back and think about it.”

The True Cost will be available internationally on May 29.