Study urges shoe industry to address impact of tanneries in India

Tanneries in India’s Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are causing significant damage to their local environments and communities, provoking the quality of groundwater to deteriorate and destroying agricultural soil, according to the report ‘Watch Your Step’ by the movement ‘Change Your Shoes’.


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Partners Inkota, Südwind, Global 2000, Cividep and SLD are calling on Indian companies to stop making profits at the expense of workers and start respecting international environmental and social standards.

The research, carried out in the states of Uttar Pradesh in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south of India, explore environmental pollution and health hazards, particularly those connected to the toxic chemical hexavalent chromium, facing local communities. Chrome tanning is the most common form of tanning in the areas where the research took place. The process consumes considerable amounts of water and uses different chemicals, resulting in high levels of wastewater and solid waste which often fails to meet the legal requirements.

"Highly toxic tannery wastewaters are mixed with other effluents on a daily basis and used to irrigate the fields," explains Pradeepan Ravi of Cividep, one of the authors of the study. "Waste like leather scraps was dumped on the roadside and burned outdoors."

The research revealed that workers are producing leather under hazardous conditions. "Employees are exposed to high temperatures and high levels of noise," says Inkota spokesperson Berndt Hinzmann. "They report muscle and joint pain, skin diseases, respiratory problems and eye irritation, as well as the loss of limbs in accidents." According to the report, employees also lack protective equipment. "The blatant discrepancy between applicable law and practice needs to change," Hinzmann continued.

“We need an industry-wide commitment,” adds Anton Pieper from Südwind. “Only when representatives of all stakeholders, including the European Union, international footwear brands, Indian authorities, footwear factories and tanneries actively engage, can working conditions and environmental conditions be effectively improved, ensuring that profits of the footwear and leather industries do not come at the cost of  those furthest down in the supply chain.”

To find alternatives, Change Your Shoes also explored existing initiatives. The ‘How to do better’ report shows that most initiatives fail to take a holistic approach, involve unions and NGOs, and rarely consider both environmental and social standards.

Change Your Shoes is an initiative of 18 human rights and labour rights organisations committed to a sustainable and ethical footwear supply chain. By raising consumer awareness, lobbying politicians and urging companies to exercise their due diligence, the campaign aims to improve the social and environmental conditions in the footwear and leather industry.

Translated by Barbara Santamaria

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