Pretty in Plastic

Pleather is a Versatile, Though Controversial, Alternative to Leather

Just when you were getting used to "fake" meat, faux fur and drinking milk from a plant, along comes "pleather," also known as "plastic leather." Before you hit the runway in your new non-leather jacket, however, you should know why some environmentalists still prefer hides or advocate for completely different materials like hemp and organic cotton, no matter what the fashion cost.

Though pleather has gained popularity in the past few years, leather has also shown sales growth in the United States and Europe. This is partially due to high-end designers showing it in their collections, but mostly to the fact that the price of leather has dropped because of increased imports from India, China, Korea and the Philippines. These countries have lower production costs and provide minimal wages and benefits.

VIA Vegan

The U.S. is a top importer of leather from India, where there are few laws protecting workers from the hazardous chemicals used in leather processing, and even fewer animal protection laws. Andrew Butler, campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says, "In India, animals are being slaughtered primarily for their skins, with meat a byproduct. They are notoriously cruel, marching the cattle hundreds of miles."

Leather labeling, says Butler, is "virtually nonexistent," which means a stamp proclaiming "cowhide" may be almost anything else, like dog, cat, goat, horse, sheep or pig. The highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide and formaldehyde in tannery effluent contaminate groundwater, and other waste products include hair, salt, lime sludge, sulfides and acids. A host of reproductive illnesses have been linked to leather workers. The New York State Department of Health found an elevated risk of testicular cancer among tannery workers. More than 95 percent of leather produced in the U.S. is tanned using trivalent and/or hexavalent chromium, the latter of which is an EPA-recognized carcinogen.

Poison Plastics?

Replacing your dad’s leather motorcycle jacket with a less environmentally damaging alternative may be surprisingly difficult. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), the principal components of pleather, are both petroleum based, and made from toxic ingredients. Though PETA insists that there is far less runoff and residue when they are produced as compared to leather, Greenpeace does not see the value in choosing plastics over leather.

"PVC is the most damaging plastic on the planet," says Lisa Finaldi, a Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Coordinator. She cites dioxin, which travels long distances on wind currents and is linked to cancer, reproductive problems and diabetes, as an inadmissible byproduct. "Leather has environmental problems as well, but it doesn’t have the global impact of PVC," says Finaldi. (For more on the environmental impacts of PVC, see our feature "Ill Winds" in this issue.)

Greenpeace urges companies to choose non-petroleum based materials, preferably biodegradable plastics from renewable, bio-based sources. "Right now, bio-based plastics are in their infancy," says Finaldi, who predicts that most designers interested in animal rights will eventually switch from harmful synthetics to these greener plastics as they become available.

Very Versatile

Currently, there is an abundance of leather-alternative products made from PVC and PU pleather. Prince, Madonna and Pamela Anderson are big fans of pleather, and there are versions of the fabric in several designers" collections, including FUBU, Prada and Moschino.

Because of its greater reliability in dying, color nuances and prints, some designers find that they have more stylistic versatility with pleather than leather. Inder Bedi, a designer and partner at Via Vegan, which makes fun, trendy bags with great graphics ($90 to $185), says, "There is much less waste when using synthetics. The materials come in rolls and are of much more consistent quality than hides." Bedi adds, "The best synthetics are made in Italy, and are just as durable as leather."

As Niki Ng of Bulge Bags points out, "Pleather doesn’t have that strong "leather smell" from all the chemical treatment." Also, while leather and suede usually require expensive and toxic trips to a dry cleaner, pleather can be cleaned with soap and water. Bulge Bags carries stylish pleather laptop bags ($80), CD cases ($35) and duffelbags ($100).

Artisan Gear

Artisan Gear, which carries a line of high-quality hemp canvas bags ($24 to $96) and wallets ($10 to $19), offers products trimmed with Sustana leather, pioneered by Deep E. Co. Sustana leather is made using only non-toxic tanning agents and water-based, chlorine-free finishing.

If you can’t imagine riding down the open road without a motorcycle jacket, there are several non-leather options. NoBull Jackets, a derivative of Pangea Vegan Products, makes a unisex Harley jacket ($129.95) and men’s and women’s business-suit style jackets made of pleather ($119.95). Competition Accessories sells nylon and synthetic blend motorcycle jackets that come with red, yellow or green highlights ($151 to $269) and pants that match ($164 to $179).

And if you need suede-like shorts or pleather pants, you will be able to find them on the racks at most department stores and women’s and men’s boutiques, or online at Frederick’s of Hollywood ($32 for shorts, $48 to $58 for pants).

STARRE VARTAN is a Connecticut-based freelance writer. Research assistance by DIANA J. BENTON.