The Lowdown on Leather: the Good, the Bad, and the Surprising Alternative Leather Options
A breakdown of the most sustainable and non-toxic leather products out there
Stop, drop, and shop! Here's to the newest fashion trend, where the only thing hotter than rocking your style, is rocking it sustainably. So, let's talk about leather. Who here loves it? Can I get a hand raise? Maybe it's your everyday bag or your "makes-everything-look-better" moto jacket, or maybe you just want to make 2019 your year to rock leather! Don't worry, we've got the health scoop on it all, from real leather to vegan leather, and even ones made of food (no, we're not joking). Keeping reading – you won't be disappointed, we promise!
Here's the scoop on pleather (a.k.a. Plastic leather)
Yes, really, this is actually leather made of plastic, otherwise known as vegan leather and pretty much explains what this product is in a nutshell. What's it made of, you ask? The more modern and slightly less bad plastic that is often used to make vegan leather is polyurethane (PU). While it's slightly better than Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which used to be the standard, it still releases hazardous toxins during manufacturing and the oil-based polymers it's made of requires fossil fuels to produce (1). Fossil fuels, to put it bluntly, are a major driver of climate change and climate change happens to have some pretty negative health effects on humans (12). Climate change can make wildfires worse, keep you sneezing from allergies, and increase the number of bugs biting you! PU is pretty stinky if you ask us!
Before manufacturers figured out how to use PU to make leather, PVC was the go-to. You may remember something about PVC from our Simple Swap: shower curtain series. Well, it's still a problem here, too. PVC isn't used as much as it was in the 1960's and 70's, but it can still be found in the composition of some vegan leather. The issue is that PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if heated. It also uses plasticizers such as phthalates to make it flexible. Depending on the type of phthalate used, they can really mess with your health (1)! You're probably thinking that if PVC releases chemicals into the environment, it can't be great sustainability-wise, and you're right! PVC is pretty much the worst plastic for the environment (11).
In terms of safety, the manufacture of synthetic leather isn't great for the environment or humans because of the plastics used to make them. The synthetics used in vegan leathers don't fully biodegrade, although they can be broken down to a degree. But, as they break down, they can also release toxic particles and phthalates, which can affect the health of animals and the environment. That's pretty much the exact opposite of what you're intending to do if you're buying pleather to be environmentally friendly (1)!
Okay, so pleather is pretty bad, what about leather?
Here's the sparknotes version of what leather is. Leather is essentially tanned animal skins; there are many forms of leather, and the type you get depends on how the animal skin has been treated (5). The treatment process, called tanning, uses all sorts of bad chemicals to produce leathers of different colors, looks and feels (5).
Leather is not 100 percent safe for consumers since there can be residual chemicals left on the product when it gets to you, but it is ESPECIALLY not safe for workers. The health effects from exposure to these chemicals range from irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat in low doses (10) and all the way to cancer in larger doses or over longer periods of time (8). You can come in contact with these chemicals just from being around the products a lot and breathing it in (in the case of workers), or even touching the products and accidentally ingesting the chemicals that have rubbed off on your hands from touching the items. One thing to remember is that since most of these chemicals are used to make the raw material leather, the chemicals are probably not in high quantities by the time the leather gets to you, but be aware that they are likely still in small quantities on the leather, and if you are sensitive, you might experience some of the symptoms we've listed!
Whoa, those both sound not so good. So, what are some good alternatives?
If you are looking for other materials that are cool and can be made to imitate leather more safely check out items made of:
- Cork: this material is considered to be the most environmentally friendly material for creating fake leather. It is naturally water resistant, durable and easily recyclable. Because it comes from trees, it can be grown sustainably to lessen the impact on the environment. While the pattern is not the exact same as real leather, it has the same soft feel and each pattern is unique (2)!
- Waxed Cotton: this material is waterproof and durable. It can look and feel like patent leather but without the harsh chemical treatments used to make patent leather (2).
- Tree Bark Leather: as its name suggests, this product comes from trees and can be grown and harvested sustainably. It is both durable and strong, not to mention unique as each tree's grain varies (2)!
- Piñatex: this material is made from pineapple leaf fibers (yes, the fruit!). It looks and feels like cowhide, and is also durable and watertight. It's a sustainable product and economically friendly for pineapple farmers because normally the leaves would be considered waste (2).
- Mushroom leather: this material is best described as synthetic silk. Unfortunately, it just debuted recently and still has a pretty steep market price, but keep an eye out for it in the future (7).
- Vintage leather: I bet you didn't see this one coming, but we're serious, reusing is a huge part of sustainability! Don't buy new as you're adding to the demand, but if you happen to see a product that calls your name at a vintage store, go for it!
There is definitely a trade-off when choosing pleather or leather products. By being more informed, you can choose a material that you're comfortable with in terms of safety (for you and for the workers that have to make these products!) and sustainability.