India Bans Leather Shoes in Schools
Mike Redwood | 13 July 2010

At a recent conference in London the scion of Clark’s footwear Galahad Clark, who owns Terra Plana and United Nude, said that there was “tremendous resistance in the marketplace to non leather footwear kid’s footwear.”  Mothers in particular know that leather breaths, handles moisture well, and conforms to the foot shape without distorting growth.  One of the great contributions of leather is the fact that it is healthy.

For this reason Russia used to have a law requiring children’s’ shoes to be made of leather purely on health grounds: so it is quite a shock to see that a new law India has banned leather from children’s’ shoes and is forcing them into canvass plimsolls.

Just reading the rationale makes one despair for a country where leather is a key export and where growth of leather footwear is the driver to increase world market share of leather using products at the expense of China.  Some of the reason is that leather shoes are a “vestige of British Colonial Rule”.  This fits into the same mode as closing all roads to traffic since the automobile is certainly such as “vestige” and certainly kills a lot of people in India.

“Leather shoes stink and need regular cleaning with toxic polish”
The next reason is that they are “environmentally hazardous”. Quoted in the Telegraph Gerry Arathoon, Secretary of the Central Board of School Education, said they “believed leather shoes stink, gather dust, need regular cleaning with toxic polish, and that the tanneries they come from are a source of disease for their workers”.  They say leather shoes do not absorb sweat, cause children to have to change them during the day and are expensive for the days. And they are not kind to cows. This last point is relevant as the law comes after along campaign by Maneka Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s daughter in law who is a leading animal rights campaigner and a strong opponent of slaughtering cows.  She is a member of parliament for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

It is true that black leather shoes were introduced by the British as mandatory items of school uniforms and that this has come to be one of the largest domestic consumer groups of Indian footwear. So it would be logical for the leather industry to have been loud and clear in presenting the arguments against these comments and this quite improper law.  Yet we have heard nothing.

Perhaps just as equally we could have expected a large modern leather industry like India’s to have developed school footwear to be lighter, cheaper and more suited to the modern world. Is not well over sixty years since the British left India and a good twenty since India came to the fore as a world leader in leather footwear?

Who is fighting for leather if the Indians aren’t?
There are some important rules here for the leather industry. No serious attack on the leather industry like this can go unopposed. It is riddled with errors and bad science.  What is this “toxic polish”?  Shoe polishes are not and never should be toxic. All reasonable people support animal welfare, even in a Hindu country like India where the cow is revered.  But that is very different from animal rights, and the outcome in countries like India is clandestine slaughterhouses that kill animals in the dead of night. These points on leather health, foot health, shoe polish, animal welfare, and the importance of the industry to work and employment need to be continuously put across and the industry defended at all times.

It can be fully accepted that India is a large country with lots of politicians with agenda to get votes.  The Indian industry tells us this will not affect the exports of shoes. But it will affect consumption and attitudes in the Indian markets with a young generation that should be linking leather with quality and foot health growing up uncertain. Already many municipal schools have already acted and banned leather shoes.

This is bad for the long term future of leather in India and it gives an opportunity and precedent for anti leather lobbies to develop in other countries.  The leather industry in India needs to change its approach and really consider its future as a delicate and precious thing. The biggest danger is that an anti leather sentiment should develop in the significant, wealthy, well educated and growing LOHAS consumer segment. LOHAS stands for Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability and this segment was first seen in the US but has now developed in Europe and is becoming apparent throughout the world.

Real opportunity in India
In India itself there is more to be said as in reality the majority of Indian municipal school students go barefoot to school.  So the leather industry should be getting itself involved to find a solution to this, and it might well involve using alternative natural fibres along with leather poorer sections of society.
No one can argue against the canvas shoe.  The plimsoll became important in the nineteenth century when English people started to holiday at the seaside and was the mainstay of tennis until Adidas and Puma got involved with higher performance, and higher cost, designs in the mid twentieth  century.  And Converse was a great college basketball shoe for poor students until again the big sports brands found they could reduce sports injuries by increasing ankle support with leather and better design –again at a high cost. So it would seem likely that Indian shoemakers could meet the challenge of a healthy, supportive shoe that combines the benefits of leather and other materials, is light weight and breathable to suit the Indian climate and most of all is affordable for poor and less well off societies. Surely such a design should come from India itself, where the obvious current need originates.

As well as defending and promoting leather the Indian leather industry needs to be showing its own creativity and branding rather than just being an OEM for western companies.

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