I recently wrote about The End of Leather which could be replaced with superior, efficient hi-tech innovation in only five years. To add fuel to the fire, today's Reuters revealed a shocking look inside the luxury leather industry's severe lack of human-welfare and environmental oversight, as researched by a Human Rights Watch study:
A boy stands in front of the tannery wastes at Hazaribagh in Dhaka October 9, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
"Luxury leather goods sold across the world are produced in a slum area of Bangladesh's capital where workers, including children, are exposed to hazardous chemicals and often injured in horrific accidents, according to a study released on Tuesday." - Reuters
Companies like Puma, who have committed to evolving beyond leather are starting to realize the incredible toll leather takes on people, animals and ecosystems. According to Puma Chairman, Jochen Zeitz, " think eventually we’ll have to look at alternative materials, there’s no question about it...We should eat less meat, all of us, and we should use less leather, I mean that’s reality.”
Bangladesh is not alone in the crises caused by the leather industry. Another recent report from Greenpeace on the destruction of rainforests and indigenous land in South America caused some waves, but the fashion industry, often depicted as rapidly capricious, turns out to be much more sloth-like when it comes to anything but the color of a shirt or hemline of a dress. Similar reports from indea document young children in liming baths with no protective equipment From the perspective of fashion semiotics (what leather represents symbolically), as transparency of the production process increases, the meaning of leather garments as fashion objects must change according to what we now know about it. It becomes increasingly difficult for leather to be seen as the paragon of quality, as the major fashion brands and the leather industry would like to maintain, when the entire production process is the furthest thing from quality.
According to the study conducted by Human Rights Watch:
This report documents an occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery. Residents of Hazaribagh slums complain of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil. The government has not protected the right to health of the workers and residents, has consistently failed to enforce labor or environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and has ignored High Court orders to clean up these tanneries. - HRW.org
Ultrasuede made from recycled PET, PU microfibers made in Italy, bioprinted in-vitro leather, bacterial-culture grown cellulose leather, textile coatings, cork, bark and other technologies are emerging that are less toxic, more efficient, more customizable controllable and perform better than animal-based leathers.