Why you should care about chrome

Does the metal detector make a sound when you go through with your handbag? In any case, an alarm should go off … and not because of the metal parts placed visibly on the outside of your bag. There is a high probability that the leather of your favourite handbag has been produced using chrome, or chromium (Cr).

What is chrome and why is it used in the manufacturing of leather handbags?

Chrome is a heavy metal that is used and released in industrial processes such as leather processing. During the tanning process, chrome salts are used to treat the leather. In many cases, tanneries do not have adequate wastewater control and treatment.

According to a report from Pure Earth and Green Cross - 2015 World´s Worst Pollution Problems, chromium is placed on the top six toxic threats to the world. It is estimated that 16 million people are exposed to globally. Over 300 sites have been identified where chromium is a serious issue to the health of the population.

Why has chrome been positioned as one of the top six toxic threats to the world?

Chromium is found in one of two forms: trivalent chromium and hexavalent chromium. While trivalent chromium is a mostly stable form that occurs naturally, hexavalent chromium tends to result from industrial processes. Chromium can cause damage to the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Hexavalent chromium is a known human carcinogen and can increase the rate of various cancer types depending on the exposure. Trivalent chromium is lower in toxicity but may still cause negative health effects and damage to DNA.

Polluted water near tanneries in Bangladesh

Photo: ecowatch.com

So why on earth does this go on?

It is estimated that today still over 90% of all leather is tanned using chrome. The main reason is that chrome-based tanning takes less time than plant-based tanning. Leather tanned with chromium generally tends to be easier to handle. In Europe traditional tanneries using plants and other natural methods have a competitive disadvantage. In many countries regulations on wastewater treatment have not been enforced.

There is good news too.

Slowly large fashion brands are waking up to their responsibility and have started to demand higher standards. Certifications such as IVN, Ecarf or Biokreis give producers of accessories a guideline. More brands start using leather that has been tanned and dyed using natural components and colours.

What can you do?

Start asking questions. You can start with the simple question “has this product been tanned using chrome?” You will be amazed how many times you will walk out of a shop or leave a web page with no information at hand. If we all ask the right questions the retailing sector will start to react. They will ask information from the brands. The brands will start to overlook their operations. It is our hope that this will contribute to raising the standards for leather production.

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