If you recycle, turn off the lights when you leave a room, refuse to drive a gas-guzzling vehicle and try not to use too much paper, you might think you have made a significant contribution towards the environment. But wait, what are your shoes made of?
Face it: leather production is bad not only for animals but also for the environment and human health.
Just a few months ago, a bench headed by the National Green Tribunal chairperson said that the hundreds of leather tanneries in Kanpur are still one of the highest sources of pollution in the Ganges, emitting serious pollutants which are injurious to human health and animal life.
A 2013 article in The Financial Times reveals:
[T]he number of tanneries producing leather for world markets has more than doubled to 400 since a common effluent treatment plant to tackle pollution of the Ganges was commissioned in 1994. The tanneries - whose waste includes dyes, salt, acids and the carcinogenic heavy metal chromium - often fail to carry out primary treatment of their waste and in any case produce too much for the central plant to handle. Black, malodorous water can be seen flowing straight into the water down a large open drain from the tannery district.
The primary health impacts from chromium are damage to the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and immunological systems, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. Chromium VI is a known human carcinogen, and depending on the exposure route, can increase the rate of various types of cancers. Occupational exposure to chromium VI, which often occurs through inhalation, has been linked to increased rates of cancer in the respiratory system.
The report goes on to state that according to the World Health Organization:
[O]ver 8,000 workers in the tanneries of Hazaribagh, India suffer from gastrointestinal, dermatological, and other diseases, and 90% of this population die before the age of 50. Separate studies in Kanpur, India also show that there is a significantly higher prevalence of morbidity in these workers, mostly from respiratory diseases owing to chromium exposure.
The pollution damages not only the health of tannery workers but also that of those who live near the tanneries. According to a study conducted by the National Cancer Registry Programme under the Indian Council of Medical Research, those living along the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are more prone to cancer than people living anywhere else in India. Cancer of the gallbladder, kidneys, food pipe (oesophagus), prostate, liver, kidneys, urinary bladder and skin are common in those areas.
Tannery pollution is also disastrous for farmers. In 2002, it was reported in Frontline that "[T]annery pollution has affected 17,170 hectares of farmland in Vellore and Dindigul districts." The magazine said this impacted 36,056 farmers, and 621 tanners were asked to pay compensation of Rs 30.75 crores to the affected farmers after a public-interest litigation was filed by Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum. Years later, thousands of farmers had yet to receive a single rupee.
Raising and killing animals for meat and leather are major contributors to climate change, and industries that use cattle are the highest contributors. In 2006, the United Nations warned raising cattle generates more global warming greenhouse gases than the transportation sector (that is cars, trucks, planes, ships combined).
Animals used for leather are also among the most abused animals on the planet. In India, cows, buffaloes and other animals are crammed onto vehicles in such high numbers for transport to slaughterhouses that many die en route. Live cattle commonly become trapped under the dead on what are often long, arduous journeys. Other cattle are forced to march over vast distances to their deaths, and when some collapse from injury or exhaustion, handlers rub chilli seeds and tobacco into their eyes and break their tailbones in misguided efforts to force the animals to move. At the slaughterhouse, those who survive the transport are typically hacked at with dull knives in full view of their companions.
The good news is that these days, it's easy to get the leather look, if that's what you want, without killing animals and wreaking havoc on the environment. Vegan (non-animal) leather is more eco-friendly than leather, looks and feels just like the other stuff and is widely available at shops across India. One simply has to read the label to make sure an item is not of animal origin. Vegan leather can also be made from a variety of green materials such as cork, tree bark, recycled rubber, waxed cotton and more. In other words, vegan leather can knock your socks off and help you walk the eco-friendly walk.