We constantly question the social and environmental impacts of our business practices and strive to do the least amount of harm. We also think leather is one best materials in the world—well-made leather only gets better with time. But we've learned that not all leather is created equal, and we're seeking to do better with ours.
When we found out the water buffalo leather used to make our shoes is produced by hand in small-scale backyard tanneries, we had to know more. So we made the trip to visit a leather-producing family, tucked between sugar cane and turmeric fields in the middle of rural India.
First, a little background: how is leather made?
Raw hides are turned into leather in a process called tanning, or treating raw animal skin to modify its proteins and stop it from degrading as it normally would. Tanning turns a raw hide into leather, and humans have been doing it for millennia (as far back as 6,000 BCE).
For most of history, tanning was basically done the same way: soaking hides in a solution of vegetable tannins (like oak bark) for many weeks, so the liquid saturates the hide and alters the proteins. That’s called vegetable tanning.
In 1858, the industrial world discovered chrome tanning. Chromium can replace plant-based tanning agents for a faster, cheaper, and more chemical-intensive process. Hides are treated with acidic salts, then chromium alters the skin’s structure to become leather. The whole process can be finished in a day, and creates soft leather that can be all kinds of colors. Today, about 90% of the world's leather is made this way.
Here’s the problem with chrome-tanned leather.
It creates a non-biodegradable product, and often badly-managed toxic waste.
Because of a desire for efficiency and low-cost goods, most leather produced today is chrome-tanned. And in countries where most of our leather is produced, like India and Bangladesh, chromium waste is often not managed safely and ends up in rivers, play fields, and people’s food supplies.
image by Pete McBride for National Geographic
Vegetable-tanned leather, while still a better alternative, is also usually produced in an industrial setting; it’s a water-intensive process, and often involves chemical treatments either before or after tanning to achieve a softer end product.
Many tanneries (even some we’ve visited in India) are making great efforts toward responsible water, waste, and environmental management, denoted by a Leather Working Group Gold Rating.
We've discovered a remarkable source of leather.
The artisans who make our shoes purchase water buffalo hides directly from small, family-run operations at a local leather market. These leather-tanning families use simple methods in their backyards, and their trade has been passed down through generations.
Their traditional method of tanning leather, called bag-tanning, uses a vegetable-based tanning solution made of just water, acacia tree bark, and the myrobalan nut (myrobalan is also a source of natural dye, and is used as an Ayurvedic medicinal).
Every step is done by hand, which sets this shoe-making leather apart from industrial vegetable-tanning processes.
Water buffalo hides are stitched into bags using plant fibers, then tanning solution is poured into each bag and slowly seeps out. Every few days the bags are flipped, for even tanning top to bottom. This lets the tanning solution fully saturate each hide.
Because it's so minimally processed, bag-tanning creates especially raw leather – no polish, no chrome, no softeners. It’s stiff, a bit dry, and it’s on you to break it in.
But with a bit of time and wear, it’ll develop a rich patina that brings out the unique buffalo grain (striations) while becoming softer and more pliable.
We're excited about bag-tanned leather, but we don't have all the answers
Bag-tanning creates strong, durable leather that patinas beautifully, and helps support the work of family tanneries. From what we saw and heard on our visit, this method also has a lower environmental impact than its industrial counterparts.
Plus, Mohinders shoes are inseparable from this type of leather. The shoe designs in this region evolved to with this particular material, so our shoes wouldn’t be the same product without it.
Even after our trek to the micro-tannery, there are still some unanswered questions about this part of our supply chain. We haven't chemically analyzed the tanning agents and waste water for safety data, and have only anecdotal evidence about where the water buffalo are raised (those questions are for our next trip).
That said, this way of making leather is still remarkable different from anything else we've seen; in India or otherwise. While we know it's not a perfect answer, we're motivated to continue on this journey to seek a better, less harmful way of sourcing leather and we'd love you to join us in our process of discovery.