What is traditionally-tanned leather?
For as long as the shoemakers who work with us can remember, their families have worked with water buffalo leather. This leather is purchased from family tanners who live and work about an hour from Athani Village. They tan leather in a slow, hands-on, non-mechanized way, in a trade that’s been passed down through generations. It’s closer to the way leather was made for thousands of years, until the process was industrialized.
With each material used to make and sell Mohinders, we do our best to reduce waste, avoid synthetics and limit our environmental impact. For us, a primary way to reduce our impact is through heirloom, non-industrialized materials and processes.
Traditional methods often don’t qualify for international certifications like Fair Trade and Certified Organic, yet we believe they inherently operate at an appropriate, small scale—and work in healthier balance with their surrounding ecosystem than modern industrialized practices.
We also think leather is one best materials in the world—it’s been made by humans since about 7000 BCE. Vegetable-tanned leather (including traditionally-tanned leather, like ours) only gets better with time.
In January of 2017 we made the trip to meet with a group of leather-producing families. They live and work in a tiny village surrounded by turmeric and sugarcane fields, about an hour from where our shoes are made.
This old way of producing leather, called bag-tanning, uses a solution comprised of just three ingredients: water, acacia tree bark, and crushed myrobalan nut (myrobalan is also used as a natural dye, and as a common remedy in Ayurvedic medicine).
Water buffalo hides are stitched into bags using plant fibers, then the three-ingredient tanning solution is poured into each bag; it slowly seeps out for a few days. Then the bags are flipped and filled again, for the process to repeat and even out top and bottom. In this way, the tanning solution fully saturates all the layers of each hide.
Aside from a simple machine that crushes myrobalan nuts into a powder, every step is done by hand; this marks the key difference between Mohinders leather and any leather (veg-tanned or not), made in a modern tannery.
How is other 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.
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. This is called vegetable tanning or veg-tanned leather.
In 1858, the industrialized world invented 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, turning it to leather. The whole process can be finished in a day, and creates super-soft leather that can be made a rainbow of bright colors. About 90% of today’s leather is made in this way.
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, 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 remove hair and soften the end product.
Many tanneries (including some we’ve visited in India) are making great efforts toward responsible waste, water, and environmental management. One way to find these tanneries is through a Leather Working Group Gold Rating.
Why Mohinders take some breaking in
Many chrome-tanned and factory-made leathers are softer, more consistent and easier to break in than ours.
Because it's so minimally processed, bag-tanning creates especially raw, intense leather – no polish, chromium, or chemical softeners. It’s stiff and dry at first, and on the wearer to break in.
But with a bit of time and wear, the caramel colored leather gets soft, turns a chocolatey tone, and develops a rich patina that brings out the unique buffalo grain (striations) on the leather’s surface.
Why we care about bag-tanned leather
Quality Bag-tanning creates strong, durable leather that patinas beautifully, and helps support the work of family tanneries.
Environmental impact From what we saw and heard on our visit, this method also has a lower environmental impact than its industrial counterparts.
Regionality 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.
We don't have all the answers
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. We have only have only anecdotal evidence about where the water buffalo are raised, and whether they die of natural causes after a life as a dairy or agricultural work animal. We hope to learn if and how they’re slaughtered, if they’re slaughtered for their hides alone, and whether the hides are a co- or by-product of meat harvesting; and if so, where the meat is distributed (those are questions for our next trip).
While this way of making leather is remarkably different from other methods we know of (in India or anywhere else), we share all this because we know we don’t have perfect answers about our impact. We're compelled to keep learning about better, less harmful ways of producing leather, and desire above all to be transparent about our practices. As two people who dig into complexity and think it’s cool to care, we hugely appreciate your thoughtful questions.