Why is leather used to make shoes

Overview of shoe production

The right to safe working conditions


Almost half of all leather products are made in Asia, the overwhelming majority in poor countries. Globally, the five main producers of leather are China (18%), Italy (10%), South Korea (7%), India (7%), Russia and Brazil (both 6%).

One of the most dangerous production steps in the production of leather is tanning, in which animal hides are processed into leather that is then used, for example, for shoes. One of the most problematic chemicals used in tanning is chromium. Chromium III is often used, which can oxidize to chromium VI (hexavalent chromium) if the tanning process is not carried out properly. Chromium VI is highly toxic to humans and the environment. 80 to 90 percent of the leather is tanned using chrome, since chrome-tanned leather is usually much cheaper than vegetable tanned.

The workers in the tanneries often work with chemicals and animal skins soaked in them without protection or adequate safety measures. As a result, they often suffer from a number of different diseases and injuries.

All hexavalent chromium compounds are considered carcinogenic. The more hexavalent chromium workers inhale and the longer they are exposed to chromium, the higher the risk of developing cancer. Direct contact with chromic acid or chromium dust can also cause permanent damage to the eyes. Hexavalent chromium can also irritate the nose, throat and lungs. Some workers develop allergies to hexavalent chromium. Inhaling the chromium compounds can then cause asthma symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Continued skin contact can also lead to skin inflammation and ulcers. Some workers develop an awareness of chromium. Contact with even small amounts can cause severe rashes.

Children who are involved in this dangerous work also work in the tanneries. Most of the children work for tanneries that have no good machines or guards. A number of studies have shown that child labor occurs mainly in the informal tanning sector and in more hidden manufacturing facilities where controls are very rare.

The tanning process can also pollute the air, soil and water, mainly through the discharge of sewage and waste contaminated with toxic chemicals into the environment. This endangers the health of the people who live in the areas around the tanneries.

Shoe factories

The health problems in shoe factories are mostly related to the use of toxic adhesives, cuts and the air we breathe, which is contaminated by the toxins of the tanned leather. Many workers also have back and vision problems and often do not have regular health checks due to very poor social welfare.

The right to safe products and more transparency in the shoe supply chain

It is known that poverty wages, poor working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals are widespread in the global footwear supply chain. Transparency is still in bad shape. In practice, it is impossible to say exactly where and under what working and environmental conditions a particular pair of shoes was produced.

This lack of transparency makes it difficult to hold producers and brands accountable for claiming that the problems are not found their part of the supply chain. As a result, not enough is being done to change the disastrous conditions, and workers and the environment continue to suffer.

The lack of transparency contradicts the United Nations guidelines on consumer protection, according to which consumers have the right to be informed about the product they have bought.

Information on the origin and composition of shoes is essential to

  1. To enable consumers to choose better and more sustainable shoes that have been manufactured with the rights of workers and with respect for the environment in mind.
  2. Enable consumers to protect their own health by choosing shoes that are free from toxic chromium and chemicals.

Wearing leather products that contain chromium VI can cause irritative and allergic rashes, as chromium VI is one of the most common skin sensitizers. The characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction to chromium are dry skin, erythema, cracked skin, papules, flaking, small blisters and swelling.

On May 1, 2015, the EU banned the sale of leather products that come into contact with the skin and exceed a chromium VI limit value. This is an important step in protecting European consumers from harmful leather products. However, the provision does not protect the people who work in tanneries and shoe factories.


  • Homeworkers in South India’s leather footwear industry. A briefing by Homeworkers Worldwide, December 2014
  • Where the shoe pinches. Child labor in the production of brand name leather shoes, SOMO, June 2012
  • Who Foots the Bill for the EU’s unfair trade agreements? Homeworkers Worldwide, March 2011
  • In the same footsteps? A Review of the Sustainability Efforts of Four Shoe Store Chains, FAIR TRADE CENTER, August 2014
  • Sustainability in the leather supply chain, ERNST & YOUNG, 2013
  • The United States Department of labor, OSHA - Occupational Safety & Health Administration (https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/hexavalentchromium/healtheffects.html)
  • Living wage in Asia, Clean Clothes Campaign, 2014