By KEEN Senior Copywriter Molly Elwood
When the KEEN video team shared they were headed to India to tell the story of our Environmentally Preferred Leather, I blurted out the skills I could bring as a video assistant—and my willingness to pack light and ride on the wing if need be.
On the surface, touring a leather tannery and a water treatment facility may not sound too sexy. But how often does a person get to see how everyday things get made? And India—oh my goodness, India. I’d been dreaming of it since I was little. The idea of going for work and meeting locals thrilled me to no end.
A few weeks later, I was headed halfway around the world with a backpack, a clipboard full of notes, and a heap of anticipation.
PORTLAND TO CHENNAI
We left Portland at 5 a.m. on a Monday, a waxing moon looming large over the airport. Thirty-one hours later (no joke), we landed in Chennai, India. As promised, the air was hot and sticky and the taxi chaos made it hard to believe it was 2 a.m.
In the few short hours before our 8 a.m. start time, I managed to shower, review my notes for the umpteenth time, and nap like the dead. Just before my alarm, I woke up, adrenaline pumping. India! I yanked open the curtains, just in time to see the sun rise pink over Chennai, pigeons crisscrossing outside my window, the sounds of horns honking. My excitement instantly overcame any exhaustion.
I WAS GRATEFUL FOR THE SLOW PACE TO TAKE IT ALL IN—THE COLORS, THE SOUNDS. IT WAS EVERYTHING I’D IMAGINED AND MORE.
After an amazing Indian breakfast, all of us—The KEEN Effect team, including colleagues from China and India, the videographer, and myself—piled into two cars to battle traffic to make the drive to Vellore. It was rush hour and the roads out of Chennai were crowded with pedestrians and animals, bikes and motorcycles, busses and brilliantly painted transport trucks, each with its own custom horn.
I was grateful for the slow pace to take it all in—the colours, the sounds. It was everything I’d imagined and more. Our Indian colleague recognised our excitement about the scenery (non-stop pictures out open windows) and indulged us with a quick stop at a coconut stand. Superb.
WHAT IS “BETTER LEATHER”?
I suppose this is a good time to explain what we were even doing in India. India has been in the tanning business since forever. They source cow hides from all over the world (including the U.S.). However, tanning is a dirty process; it takes a lot of water and chemicals to turn hides into soft, wearable leather. And as KEEN continues along our detox journey, we’ve moved to only sourcing leather from tanneries certified by the Leather Working Group. These LWG-certified tanneries are the gold-standard in responsible leather. They use water-treatment solutions that reduce water and energy use and wastewater pollution, including a completely closed-loop system used in India.
So, what does that look like in person? We were about to find out.
DAY 1: A CLEARER VIEW OF THE WATER
We arrived at the Ranitec water treatment facility around noon. After lunching with their higher-ups (where I unknowingly took a plate of something meant to be shared and ate it all myself), the tour began.
Ranitec is a network of white and cream-coloured buildings, connected by pipes, and lined with white fencing. It was dotted with flowering trees, gardens, and fountains—there was even a little fenced-in yard with ducks! (I asked why; it was explained that they made the workers happy.) In short, it was not what I’d expected. The smell though…I’d anticipated that. There’s no way to sugar coat it—it definitely smelled like a water treatment plant.
We started where the water came in from the tanneries and followed it along its closed-loop journey. There were machines that physically separated the bio solids, open tanks bubbling with brown, frothy water, and massive settling ponds.
We toured labs and got a high-level science lesson about reverse osmosis and desalination. Though I definitely can’t tell you how it works, I do know that, in the end, they’ve separated the chemicals from the water and both are piped right back to the tanneries. The water comes out clean enough to drink (which The KEEN Effect team proudly drank and confirmed—yep. It’s clean!). After all of this, the only byproduct is salt.
Moon over Vellore
We finished shooting as the sun was setting. I was thinking about how crazy it was that we hadn’t even been in India a full 24 hours yet. Before taking us to our hotel for the night, our colleagues drove us to the Jalakandeswarar Temple and Vellore Fort. There were crowds of people in the parks and street, so many that we soon had to park the car and walk.
“What’s happening?” I asked my coworker. “Is there a holiday or an event or…?”
“Nope,” he answered, smiling. “It’s just a Tuesday.”
Standing at the foot of the temple, everything hit me at once—the sounds, the colours. The head wobble. There were families out enjoying the cooler air, women in colourful saris, men with arms slung around each other’s shoulders, pigeons flying, music rising in the moonlight, those cheerful, trilling truck horns off in the distance.
It was so much stimulation, so much humanity, all at once, and it was always here in India, on a Tuesday.
“It must be the jetlag,” I lied to my coworkers, wiping away a happy tear.
DAY 2: LEATHER, FROM BLUE TO FINISH
The next morning—after another awesome traditional breakfast—we drove to one of the leather tanneries that uses water from Ranitec. I had zero idea of what a tannery would look like, but I admit it: I was nervous as I knew…well, cow hides. The place, though, was light and airy, with open doors and skylights and fans. And the hides—well, when they arrive, they’re blue.
“They’re blue because they’re pickled,” a coworker explained. “For transport overseas.”
The hides are washed and then fed through many machines—machines that remove chemicals, add chemicals, soften them up, add dyes, etc. People worked alone and in pairs at various stages of the process, manning giant wash drums, pouring things into washers, rinsing the skins, pressing them smooth and flat, hanging them to dry. Meanwhile, all that water, all those chemicals—they’re all being contained to be reused again and again.
Moon over Ambur
That night, we stayed at a futuristic tannery guest house in Ambur. I joined the rest of my colleagues on a patio, along with the owner of one of our shoe factories, where we enjoyed ice cold beers and swapped stories about India and America and life. Later, as I stood in the garden to call home to say hi, I saw the moon for a third time, rising full overhead. How strange, to see it three nights in a row. Or was it two days? How much time had passed since I left Portland? I didn’t know.
DAY 3: SHOES, MADE BY HAND
On the last day, I was given a tour of a factory that makes our shoes—and I was given a camera. Now, I’m in advertising, so don’t judge me too harshly, but I never thought about how shoes are actually made. You know when you see shoes advertised as “handmade?” Turns out, all shoes are handmade. Components are hand cut, holes are punched, things are glued—and then these pieces are put into bins, with each bin holding all the pieces to one shoe, like a puzzle. These are then sewn together, by hand. It’s all…people.
After the factory and before my coworkers headed to the airport (everyone else was continuing to tour our factories in Asia), our Indian colleagues took us to the Golden Temple in Vellore. We had to take off our shoes and put our phones in a locked bag, which meant I finally had the chance to just be in India without snapping a photo of everything I saw. It was a mile-long, meditative walk along a star-shaped path. It was lovely.
I couldn’t believe it was almost over—and that I had still had one more day, all to myself.
One more moon
I started the morning at a nearby café, people- and traffic-watching. I saw folks talking over breakfast, having a relaxing Saturday morning. I saw two policemen sharing one motorcycle. I watched birds eating trash. I followed a thin cow for a while. I saw extreme poverty. I got sunburned.
The poverty is unavoidable in India—as is the gender issue, which I’ve left until the end here. It’s one thing to study up on cultural stuff (and wear long sleeves in 100-degree weather), but it’s another to be the only woman with higher-ups in a Muslim area, to enter a temple via a separate entrance, or be given the only room without a balcony “because it was safer.” Truth time: Yes, it made me resentful—on behalf of all women. I felt safe. I wanted to control my own trip—and obviously, this made my blood boil regarding women’s issues around the globe. I honestly hadn’t closely considered how well I had it in the U.S.
My colleagues recommended I hire a guide for the one day in Chennai and not wander on my own. I balked…but then remembered I was technically still on a company trip, so I accepted. After lunch, I met up with Raj, my tall, official-looking guide who wore a hotel uniform. He took me souvenir shopping and then dropped me off for the guided cultural tour I booked (I can’t recommend Story Trails enough).
When Raj picked me up again, he gave me some ideas of places to visit. I chose Elliot’s Beach, where I saw the full moon again, this time over the Bay of Bengal.
Had I ever noticed the moon so many nights in a row?
Like the evening at the temple in Vellore, the beach was crowded with families enjoying the night air. There were food stalls and carnival-type games. We shared a salted mango and did ring toss (I won a little ceramic temple). I won’t lie—it felt like the best version of a platonic blind date. Raj told me about his life, his house, his marriage, and the floods that hit Chennai in 2015. I asked about cultural things I’d seen and shared about my life in the states; Raj exclaimed over things I took for granted as a Western woman, like me owning my house, or enjoying tequila, or traveling alone.
Raj also took me to the Ashtalakshmi Temple, just before it closed. Inside, he pushed me to the front of a crowd of people to be blessed (I think?) with water given to me by a man covered in ash. And I did feel blessed.
I realised that with the time change, I’d be home by dinner the next evening and who knew when I’d be back to India? No matter when, I knew it couldn’t be soon enough.
There are hundreds of choices that go into making a shoe. We think each one is a chance to lighten our impact. Learn more about what we mean when we say "Consciously Created," and the steps we’re taking to make better shoes for a better planet.