Old-Fashioned Chromium

In this edition of ‘do as Richard says, not as Richard does’ we look at Morocco’s traditional leather industry and I’ll explain why you shouldn’t accept invites to medieval sweatshops.

Dyed hides being collected and transported for drying at the Chouara tannery in Fes.

On the face of it, a leather tannery makes for a pretty strange sort of tourist attraction. While most governments are proud of their key exports, they normally only let tourists get up close to the more innocuous industries. The Irish will let you tour the Guinness brewery and I’m sure the Dutch will let you visit a tulip farm but I doubt the Germans are offering tours of industrial abattoirs and I don’t recall anyone in America handing out invites to the ArmaLite assembly line. In Morocco, however, tourists are practically dragged off the street and frog-marched through a tour of the medieval leather industry.

The smell of an open-air tannery is hard to describe and even harder to exaggerate. Visitors are offered a sprig of mint to put under their nose before they come face to face with the tanning vats but it barely takes the edge off the stench. The reason for this assault on the senses becomes apparent when the tanning process is explained. 

The ‘traditional’ methods employed in the medinas of Marrakesh and Fes involve subjecting the animal hides to a series of chemical baths over several days. After being soaked and disinfected raw pelts are submerged in vats of cow urine, quicklime, salt, and water to remove the residual blood and fat from the skin. The hides are then dried and passed onto workers who use dull knives to remove the remaining hair. Afterwards the hides are bathed in a fermenting solution made up of salt water and pigeon shit in order to soften the material. Workers stand waist-deep in the vats to get the hides to the desired consistency.

All this is just preparation for the actual tanning process which turns the animal hide into something that can be worked and treated without decomposing. Unfortunately tanning produces some very toxic by-products which are dangerous, not only to workers, but also anyone living nearby.

The guides will tell you that the processes used at Tanneries like Bab Debbagh in Marrakesh and Chouara in Fes are natural and sustainable. Chouara’s guides claim that the tannery has been continually operating since the 14th century. Between the vats and the donkeys and the timber drums the whole setup certainly looks ancient but, when it comes to authenticity, the devil is in the details and it’s the modern additions to the process which make these ‘traditional’ tanneries so toxic.

Historically tannins – extracted from the bark of trees like oaks and hemlocks – were used to convert hides into leather. However in the early 19th century researchers trying to improve the properties of medical sutures (at the time made from animal intestines) discovered that tissue treated with chromic acid was much more resistant to decay.

Commercial tanneries quickly adopted the new chemical and, over the last two centuries, Chromium III sulfate has become the standard tanning agent all over the world. Chrome-tanned leather tolerates high temperatures, absorbs less water, and dyes more easily and it’s allowed the industry to produce heavy-duty leather for all sorts of applications. Unfortunately, under the right conditions, it can transform into a much more toxic substance.

Understanding the threat posed by the various forms of chromium requires a short chemistry lesson. On its own trivalent Chromium (Chromium III) is not considered a health hazard and may actually play some role in how humans metabolise glucose. However heat, UV exposure and reactions with other chemicals can all cause oxidation – turning trivalent chromium into its toxic ‘hexavalent’ form (Chromium VI). By almost any measure hexavalent chromium is a particularly nasty compound. At low levels it tends to provoke skin and eye irritation but chronic exposure damages blood cells and eventual causes kidney and liver failure. As well as being highly carcinogenic it can also trigger genetic mutations – causing a range of reproductive problems and birth defects*. 

The tanning process uses an immense volume of water and vast quantities of concentrated dyes which gradually lose their potency. At Chouara tannery in Fes the dyes are replaced every few weeks and thousands of gallons of chemically-tainted effluent are flushed straight back into the waterway. Imagine St Patrick’s Day in Chicago but less festive. 

Over the years the river that divides the old city of Fes El Bali – the Oued Fes – has become heavily polluted. In addition to the chemical runoff it also collects a great deal of sewage and household waste carried by stormwater from the densely populated streets of the medina. The local name for the urban stretch of river – Oued Bou Khareb – literally translates to ‘river of trash’.

Starting in the 1950s the smell of the Bou Khareb prompted authorities to cover over the river with concrete – effectively converting it into a large sewer. Restoration efforts have been underway in recent years and large stretches have now been unearthed once again but calls to close down the tanneries have fallen on deaf ears and Chouara remains one of the largest tourist draws in the city.

If we assume that not everyone is strong-armed into touring the tanneries we have to account for their popularity as a tourist destination. Part of the appeal must be a sort of voyeurism. In some sense visiting the tanneries is like touring Johannesburg’s townships or Mumbai’s slums – offering a glimpse into a world untouched by OH&S where working conditions are difficult, dirty and dangerous. Slum tours have a long history stretching back to Europe’s industrial revolution but in recent years they’ve taken off again in places like Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa and India.

My sense is that the tour guides tailor their talking points to the sensibilities of particular tourists. For visitors who are enthusiastic about the final product the guides are probably happy to emphasise the ‘Conan pushing the wheel’ aspect of the work. In my case, knowing that I probably wasn’t in the market for a handbag, the guides tried to offer reassurance that the shirtless men standing waist-deep in cow piss actually enjoyed a high level of job satisfaction. I was told that the tannery was run as a co-operative and all profits were shared amongst the workers. I remain skeptical but have no way of knowing  because there’s very little information online about how the tanneries operate and what the workers actually earn.

At a deeper level places like Chouara appeal to the romantic notion that hand-made objects are automatically preferable to anything mass-produced. As craftspeople in developed economies have been sidelined by industrial processes a sort of nostalgia for ‘the way things were’ has crept into our calculations about value and quality. You see this craving for authenticity in the marketing for luxury goods of all sorts- from single origin coffee beans to fair-trade Ishka homewares. Everybody wants effort to have gone into their imported goods but no one really wants to pay full price for that effort. Notice that DeBeers doesn’t spend any of its marketing budget trying to allay concerns about the working conditions in its mines. On some level they must understand that the misery inflicted on the workers is part of the appeal.

I still remember a TV commercial for Kettle chips in the 90s that showed a single elderly man sitting in a warehouse surrounded by mounds of potatoes painstakingly whittling each one down into a single translucent slice. As the old man admired his handiwork the scene cut to a group of young people grabbing fistfuls of chips at crowded party followed by the tagline – ‘cooked by hand, eaten by the handful’. It’s dark humour for a potato chip promotion but in Morocco’s traditional tanneries you can see the real analogue.

Watching men treading hides in the vats in Chouara or women painstakingly sewing silk buttons in Sefrou you realise that ‘hand made’ can encompass a whole tragedy in just two words. In the west, to alleviate our guilt, we tell ourselves that our purchasing decisions create ‘economic opportunities’. But we’re also addicted to cheap clothing and apparel with supply chains that even the most ethically-minded brands can’t adequately police. 

The tragedy of places like Chouara is that they’re kept running mainly to sell this perverse idea of authenticity. The Moroccan leather industry is worth $40 million USD a year. The vast majority of their exported leather comes from modern factories with high tech filtering systems that extract chromium and recycle water. The kneading is done by machine and the workers use power tools to scrape the hides. The finished material is exported to places like Italy and Spain to be converted into luxury shoes and handbags. In Fes alone there are roughly 50 of these modern tanneries but they don’t offer tours and they don’t sell directly to the public. They do, however, benefit from the mystique of the traditional tanneries and the sense of authenticity that western consumers crave.

*Exposure to hexavalent chromium was revealed to have caused a raft of cancers and genetic abnormalities in the small town of Hinkley in California in the early 1990s. The resulting class-action lawsuit was made famous by Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Erin Brokovich. 

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.


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