Ordinary leather shoes generally contain environmental toxicants

Tuesday, 15th of December 2009 - Tests on commonly purchased leather shoes carried out in a survey by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation [1] (SSNC) and global partners including groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa [2] reveals that ordinary leather shoes contain environmental toxicants of various kinds that invariably can spread both to the wearer and into the environment [3].

The most serious finding is that tons of trivalent chromium deriving from the tanning of the shoes is spread into the environment around the world every year. This chromium can be transformed into carcinogenic hexavalent chromium in conjunction with incineration and dumping.

SSNC carried out analyses on 21 pairs of shoes, which were purchased around the world including Sweden, South Africa, Uganda, India, the Philippines and from Belarus as part of the work of the work SSNC routinely undertake into investigating the content of environmental toxicants in ordinary consumer products. Previously towels, T-shirts, sun lotions and plastic shoes have already been similarly investigated.

The shoes were analysed for a number of chemical substances, and several environmental toxicants were found. These include carcinogenic and hormone disrupting substances, azo dyes which can be transformed into carcinogenic aromatic amines and can be absorbed into the skin when the shoes are being worn, and,  highly toxic pesticides.

A number of other environmentally hazardous metals were also found in the shoes including arsenic, mercury and lead. Trivalent chromium was found to be present at high levels in all the pairs of shoes other than one naturally tanned pair. Trivalent chromium is a relatively harmless chemical. However, when the discarded shoes are incinerated or, as is common in other parts of the world, are thrown away on rubbish tips and the chromium is spread with the effluent into the environment, and there is a risk that the chromium will oxidize to form hexavalent chromium, which is a carcinogenic and environmentally harmful chemical. If the levels of chromium found in all the tested shoes are representative, we estimates that many hundred tons of chromium is distributed around the world every year. This chromium usually ends up as waste.

Global legislation is currently toothless in this regard. There is nothing in place at the present time to regulate the widespread use of harmful metals like chromium in consumer products. We encourage leather suppliers to use and develop alternative toxin free tanning methods.

From South Africa shoes from Groundcover, in KwaZulu Natal were sent to Sweden.  The lead content in the shoes were the highest internationally. Justin McCarthy of Groundcover, says that clean and “enviro friendly” leather tanning certainly is possible. “There are many small tanneries in Europe that are located in the middle of towns and villages. One of the main reasons many shoe hides remain chrome tanned is related to price which compared to alternatives is about 20% cheaper, however this does not include the environmental and potential human health costs which if considered will probably change this ratio. Groundcover is investigating how these elevated levels of lead are in the leather shoes’

Rico Euripidou from groundWork said that if retail outlets who portray themselves as green (such as Woolworths) and others took a stand and decided not to purchase shoes that were chrome tanned it might lead to a tipping point changing the behaviour of other retailers and in the long run it would be most beneficial to the SA market. Change, it seems, needs to be consumer driven!

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and SwedWatch have also initiated an inspection of the production conditions and the environmental effects of shoe manufacturing in various locations in the world. This report will be presented next week.

For more information:
In South Africa

Rico Euripidou - groundWork- Friends of the Earth SA
Tel: +27-33-3425662, +27-83-5193008

In Sweden

Andreas Prevodnik, Project Manager for the tests +46 (0)70-970 41 29

Anders Grönvall, Press Officer, +46 (0)70-655 46 19

Additional sources of information:

Read the entire report (in English):

Free publicity images of the tested shoes:

More about our earlier tests on consumer products:


[1] The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation is a non-profit environmental organisation with the power to bring about change. We spread knowledge, chart threats to the environment and create solutions, as well as lobby politicians and agencies at both national and international levels. www.naturskyddsforeningen.se Tel. +46 (0)8-702 65 00, Address: Box 4625, SE-116 91 Stockholm, Sweden Street address: Åsögatan 115, Stockholm, Sweden.

[2] groundWork is a environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Pollution, Waste (including Health Care Waste) and Environmental Health. groundWork is a member of Friends of the Earth International.

[3] Leather shoes spread environmental toxicants: http://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/in-english/chemicals/leather-shoes-spread-environmental-toxicants/