Most of the employees at the tanneries of Hazaribagh, the principal leatherworking district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, work with their bare hands. They “stood barefoot in chemicals on the tannery floor, waded into tanks filled with tanning solutions, and climbed into drums to retrieve the wet blue leather, literally bathing themselves in a soup of caustic and potentially toxic chemicals.”
This is just one detail in an unflinching four-part series on the evolution, migration and impacts of the global leather-tanning and textile industries, produced for Undark by Larry C. Price and Debbie M. Price in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Driven by Larry’s astounding, unsettling photography (he is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), and augmented by Debbie’s scrupulous reporting and keen eye for narrative detail, the series moves from the unregulated squalor of Hazaribagh to the former leather-processing hubs of Upstate New York; from the noxious banks of the Citarum River, in the heart of Indonesia’s textile industry, to the resurgent high-tech fabric mills of North Carolina.
What emerges is a compelling, clear-eyed portrait of globalization, whose push-and-pull politics too often pits the safety and health of local communities against the need for jobs and the imperatives of sensible government oversight.
The Prices — both former staffers of The Baltimore Sun — combed through commercial import and export databases to shed light on the murky and byzantine supply chains of Western clothing and footwear manufacturers, and to identify those whose inventory might be helping to keep the mills in Bangladesh and Indonesia swirling in pollution. In America, meanwhile, the former boomtowns enjoy cleaner air and water, along with better overall public health, while still coping with the economic scars left by plant shutdowns.
Through thoughtful reporting, deft prose, and dozens of photographs that are by turns chilling, enlightening, heartrending, and hopeful, Debbie and Larry Price bring new resonance to a truism of environmental reporting: It doesn’t have to be this way.