Leather Industry from a Western Perspective
This Spring my partner and I travelled to Morocco. As a leather aficionado, I was interested in the tanneries and leather goods for which Morocco is known. However, what I learned about the tanneries and what I saw effectively dampened my enthusiasm.
Upon arrival, our Riad hosts debriefed us on the dos and don’ts of the Medina (North African word for a maze-like city structure) and its souk (market). The first warning was to avoid anyone trying to sell henna tattoos, and the second was the tanneries and anyone who tried to take us to one.
It is common practice in Marrakech for men to approach you in the Medina, feigning kindness and offering to help you if you are lost or take you to see a special, local sight. Even if you ask him straight out if he is trying to take you to a tannery, he will dodge the question and continue to persuade you to follow him. The bottom line from our lovely hosts was if you want to go to a tannery, please let them arrange a legitimate guide for you, please do not go alone. When we asked them if it was even worth the excursion, their honest opinion was no.
Even despite this warning, we found ourselves following a young man to a tannery when we lost our way in the maze of the hundreds of twists and turns. He kept insisting he was leading us to our desired restaurant until finally we felt uneasy enough to abort and find our own way back.
After Marrakech, we spent a few days in Fez, which is renowned for its tanneries. Once again, we avoided anyone who tried to take us to see anything. But then we stumbled upon a tannery right in the souk, and all we had to do was walk in and check it out. No maze of alleys down which to follow a stranger, no pushy salespeople at the end, no strings attached. We’d heard how picturesque the tanneries were, so we thought “hey, why not?”
What we saw has really stuck with both of us. One quick look was enough to see that from our Western-privilege point of view, it looked like borderline slavery. The conditions and the smell were horrific. The greeter then pointed to a second dilapidated level, which he was proud to tell us served as accommodations for the workers. A room in exchange for work sort of deal. I couldn’t even imagine animals sleeping in these conditions. In fact, they probably didn’t. There are feral cats everywhere in Fez, and I didn’t see a single one anywhere around the tannery. We quickly thanked the man and turned to leave.
This experience did, however, put the leather goods of Morocco into perspective. Before we arrived I was anticipated purchasing a boatload of products, but not only did I not see anything appealing in the souk (everything looked cheap and kitschy), I wouldn’t have ethically been comfortable supporting the Moroccan leather industry after I saw their tannery conditions. It also made me all the more grateful and proud to work for a company which supports true artisan leather, ethically made start to finish.