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What type of leather tanning process is used by your favorite brands might seem like an esoteric and neglectable part your shopping process, and that is also why most brands uses the cheapest and not surprisingly most toxic method of leather tanning available: namely chrome tanning. Why is this method so unsustainable and how does it actually compare to the natural method of vegetable tanning? Let's dive in and find out!
First things first, let’s talk about leather tanning itself, which is in its essence, transforming animal skins into actual leather. The transformation of an animal skin into a piece of leather is primarily achieved by removing water molecules from the collagen of the skin, (which is the protein that the skin consists of). However when drawing out the the skin might get ruined, as it gets dry and inflexible. Hence, since ancient times, (literally for thousands of years), people have been soaking the skins in natural tannins to dehydrate the leather, which replaces the water molecules and binds with the collagen, preventing the part where the leather goes stiff and inflexible! These vegetable tannin solutions are made up of organic substance present in trees (such as oak, chestnut or mimosa), or a large number of other types of trees and plants.
Vegetable tanned leather takes up to two months to develop in a process that is mainly done by hand. It requires skill, patience and care and the tanning process uses no harmful chemicals, unlike its chrome tanned counterpart.
a yellowish or brownish bitter-tasting organic substance present in some galls, barks, and other plant tissues, consisting of derivatives of gallic acid, used in leather production and ink manufacture.
This vegetable tanning process, consisting of repeatedly soaking skins in natural tanning solutions is painstakingly slow and complex, and usually takes at minimum of one-two months to finish, requiring the supervision of skilled craftsmen. This was not preferred by the forces industry, who devised a new method in 1858 where leather tanning would be achieved much quicker (achieved in one day in fact) and cheaper using a mix of chemicals, primarily chromium. This chemical tanning method has since been the preferred method of leather tanning, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s leather.
The ancient method of vegetable tanned leather was replaced by chromium (chrome) tanning in 1858, as tanneries looked for ways to expedite the process and save money. Currently this process accounts for over 90% of the world's leather.
Unlike vegetable tanning, chrome tanners don’t get raw hides, but rather pre-treated skins put through an initial tanning process where the hides come out with a distinct bluish tinge. The basic tanning principles are the same: water molecules are removed from the collagen of the skin, but using chromium salts instead of tannins. The chrome ions displacing the water are smaller than vegetable tanning molecules which generally makes chrome tanned leather thinner and softer than vegetable tanned leather. The process is usually achieved by placing hides in acidic drums or baths, consisting of a mix of chemicals. This creates loads of toxic wastewater that if left untreated can cause massive environmental impacts, like in India, where farmlands are swamped with with blue-tinted wastewater, poisoned with a concoction of chemicals such as lead, arsenic Chromium, Methyl isothiazolinone, anthracene and formaldehyde, which can cause health problems in the eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, and also cause lymphatic systems.
Chrome tanned leather is leather produced using a solution of chemicals, acids and salts to dye the hide. It’s cheap, quick and mass produced, typically requiring little skill from the tanners. Chrome, like any heavy metal, is extremely toxic and environmentally damaging, thus creating wastewater leftovers that are very toxic.
In the never ending quest to lower production cost, most companies compromise with the quality in terms of the leather quality and the production of the leather products when they turn to mass producing chrome tanned leather products, and this greatly reduces the lifespan of a chrome tanned leather product. Not only is the leather itself bound to fall apart much sooner than any vegetable tanned leather counterpart; the cost-cutting production methods for chrome tanned leather products include treating the edges of bags with acrylic varnish that causes the material to crack within a few years, instead of using techniques like turned edges or burnishing (which are more time-consuming, but create a product that last for decades), furthermore decreasing its lifespan. Many brands have undermined their integrity by chasing volume and profits at the cost of quality, all while doing considerable harm to the environment and this have led some experts to even call for the ban of chrome tanning within the fashion industry.
Chrome Tanned Leather hides are actually Blue when it comes out of the Tannery! This is called ‘wet blue’. The finishing color is applied later.
While vegetable tanned leather does take longer to produce, in a process requiring the care of skilled craftsmen, making for a more expensive product, the tradition and handmade process adds to the richness and the exclusivity of vegetable tanned leather, in stark contrast to the mass produced chrome tanned leather. It also adds to vegetable tanned leather products impressive ageing and longevity, whereas the chrome tanned products will wear badly and crack sooner rather than later.
Vegetable tanned leather is darker and more earthy, and stiff before it is worn in, which are all signs of coming from a natural tanning process.
While chrome tanned leather colors tend to be more vibrant, due to its synthetic nature there is little doubt, that for a slightly higher price, vegetable tanned leather is a far superior and earthy leather that is a joy to wear and watch develop a patina, whereas the chrome tanned leather product leaves little surprises and will deteriorate with time and use. A vegetable tanned leather will get suppler to the touch and better with use, but a chrome tanned leather product’s development will only go in one direction: towards deterioration. That is why we think vegetable tanned leather is far superior to chrome tanned leather.