There are lots of environmental reasons to avoid buying leather, in particular the chemical-laden production processes and the polluting consequences of livestock. Leather production involves a large amount of resources to raise livestock, slaughter animals and tan the hide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency details two types of leather tanning: vegetable tanning, which is the oldest tanning process, and chrome tanning, which makes up 90% of tanning production in the U.S. Among the list of possible emissions from the leather tanning and finishing industry are volatile organic compounds like ammonia, sulfides and chromium.
Fish Finds and Cork Couture
While leather alternatives are certainly better for animals’ wellbeing, they may not always represent an environmental improvement. Go-to materials like Leatheretee, Naugahyde, Kydex and vinyl all contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC) dubbed “The Poison Plastic” by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice since it contains chloride and emits dioxins when incinerated. Meanwhile, fish skin-based leather shows promise. Andrew MacDermott of Autralia’s Mermaid Leather upcycles fish skins left over from the fish processing industry that would otherwise go to waste. Although tanning is involved, MacDermott says they keep chemicals to a minimum with vegetable-based bark tanning methods.
Companies such as Jelinek Cork Group and Corx specialize in cork leather which is soft, flexible, waterproof, durable and stain- and scratch-resistant. The cork material is “just as durable as leather and is more durable than suede,” says Alison Ostner, sales representative at Jelinek. “It’s very versatile.” Cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees that are found in the Mediterranean region. The bark is harvested from the tree approximately every nine years in a process that does not damage the tree and can be repeated for upwards of 200 years. “We use every little bit of the bark, even the shavings that fall on the ground,” Ostner says.The fabric derived from the cork has a supple feel and warm tone that’s used for everything from furniture to handbags to jewelry. The material does not require any special care and can be cleaned with a little soap and water. It also doesn’t absorb water, dirt or dust and is much lighter than leather.
A hot spot for leather alternatives and animal cruelty-free products is Alternative Outfitters, based in Pasadena, California. “Finding non-leather fashion that’s still cool and hip can be hard,” says Jackie Horrick, co-owner of this vegan boutique. The store sells leather alternatives that are not only cruelty-free, but affordable and in fashion. Many of their shoes and handbags are made of polyurethane which is breathable and pliable just like leather, and greener than PVC since it doesn’t contribute to dioxins, although it’s still petroleum-based.MooShoes is another vegan-owned business that sells animal-free products that are made under fair labor standards. They exclusively sell polyurethane synthetic microfiber that does not contain PVC or vinyl. Based in New York City, the store offers a host of brand-name shoes, clothes and accessories including Novacas, Saucony, Dr. Martens and Madden Girl.