Undark Tracks Toxic Trail of Global Textile, Tannery Industries

Wear and Tear, a four-part series of reports from digital publication Undark, documents the impacts of tanneries and textile mills that take advantage of weak environmental regulation in developing economies.

Produced by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT, Undark examines the movement of two international industries: Tanning in India and in Bangladesh, where government efforts to clean up leather processing have stalled; and textiles in Indonesia, where the Upper Citarum River and the rice fields it watered have been ruined by factory effluents.

The series installments on Bangladash and Indonesia make use of Datamyne trade data to trace the output of these toxic operations to US companies.

For example, shipping records from January through the end of October 2016 show companies in the US imported $52.24 million worth of leather and leather goods from Bangladesh. Most shipments contained leather goods – very little contained unfinished leather shipped directly from Bangladesh’s notorious Hazaribagh tanneries. As Undark notes, consumers have no way of knowing where the leather in those shoes, purses, or belts came from unless the companies themselves reveal their supply chains – and Undark asked fashion and shoe companies identified as importers in the Datamyne records to do just that. The largest of these include Michael Kors, Timberland, Hugo Boss, C & J Clark America, Puma, and the Gap Inc. brand Banana Republic.

For perspective on long-term damage done by unbridled industry and the potential to rebuild manufacturing that is environmentally friendly, the Undark series looks to the US: Still struggling is Gloverville, New York, the leather capital of the world until lower cost producers overseas started to siphon off its business – and the Clean Water Act of 1972 raised the costs of manufacturing there. Meanwhile, textiles are making a high-tech comeback, albeit with fewer employees, in North Carolina mill towns that were decimated by offshoring.

Read the series installment on leather processing in Bangladesh and India: “Skin Deep: Feeding the Global Lust for Leather” »

Read the series installment on textiles in Indonesia: “Worse for Wear: Indonesia’s Textile Boom” »

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