Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Leather industry

A fashion advertisement reads: Leather...utterly hip from head to toe. Yes, I love leather, but I am also a vegetarian and tend to enjoy a clean environment.  Written to make you feel very very guilty, PETA information on the leather industry primarily targets harsh conditions in India and China. Yes, like most products we mass-consume, a lot of leather comes from these places where commercial livestock is not humanely regulated, and leather used for high dollar products is processed without environmental regulations, then shipped all around the world.

I live across from a free range cattle operation, and those cows have a magnificent life...up until their impending doom. I attempted to track these happy hides of Humboldt County, and the circuitous working of the leather industry were subsequently revealed to me.

I called Humboldt Grass Fed Beef, a larger operation than my neighboring cows, in an effort to track down where they send their hides. They gave me the number of the processors they send the cattle to. The processor gave me the number of a company, Barta Hide in Petaluma, to whom they sell the hides to. Very excited, I called that company hoping to visit the tannery. Much to my dismay, Barta Hide is not a tannery. They sell hides to tanneries and buy hides from tanneries, buy leather from random sources, and sell leather to customers. The hides they receive are cured in salt and are preserved in this way until shipment.

The owner conveyed to me, upon my pressing for a source for local organic grass-fed vegetable tanned leather (sounds like a tall order!), that there is no way to keep track of which hides go and what comes back. 

I made a visit to Barta Hide, housed in a trailer and a warehouse space--an old school operation to say the least, but very familiar to me at the same time, reminiscent of my days picking vintage clothes at rag shops and scavenging around in El Paso.  Not only is Barta Hide a haven for scrap leather, it is a great place for arty photographers of junk mixed in with livestock remnants.  You know who you are.


The owner of Barta Hide further reiterated the difficulties of tracking specific hides. He also told me that he can usually identify the grass-fed hides because they are thinner and less robust, which makes sense if you think about the hormones and intense corn-fed diet of commercial livestock.  

I came away from the conversation thinking that, if I could stick to scraps and hides tanned in the United States, supporting small businesses with my meager purchases, my personal ethics would not feel so compromised. 

inspecting some hides at the vegetable tanned "show table"

The only remaining company that does vegetable tanning is on the East Coast, which still seems like a far trek for my little cow neighbors. Some hides form California go to tanneries in Mexico and United Kingdom for vegetable tanning as well. 

Wickett and Craig of Pennsylvania is the only tannery left in the United States that still does vegetable tanning, from what I understand (please correct me if I am wrong). I have contacted custom tanneries in Washington, where there used to be an old tannery doing vegetable tanning, but to no avail.

This company in the UK does vegetable tanning, and the tannery is "on-farm!" This scenario is my dream for Humboldt County...any investors?
"Not only is there an urgent need for genuine Organic tanneries, but given the ever increasing cost to the environment; local ones! Well at least on the same Island or Continent." 

The only company in the USA taking advantage of marketing free-range leather--Organic Leather out of California--does not appear to take advantage of local livestock or tanneries within the United States. Shipping uses large amounts of fossil fuels and packaging.  They market vegetable tanned leather as "eco-leather," but my conversations with them in attempt to acquire tooling vegetable tanned leather left me confused, and inquiries about their tracking system were unanswered. They make organic leather products, manufactured in India. 


  1. Hello, I love your article. I am a start up shoe company in California. It's just me, but I have a lot of resources here locally & have been investigating the same stuff! Call me when you can.
    Stephanie (213) 308-4352 :)

  2. I would like to know more about starting a tannery in Northern California. I live in San Francisco. Contact me at www.pasturedfoods.com

  3. Hello,
    I know it's been a while since you wrote this post, but I couldn't help thinking "that's exactly what I'm going through!" when I read it. Have you made any headway in finding eco-friendly leather in the last few years? I am a vegetarian in the San Francisco area too, and am desperate to find ethical sources for my leather crafting business. But have had zero luck.
    Your article was wonderful and I'd appreciate any advice you have.
    Thank you!

  4. Great article! Thank you for posting this.