Leather You Can Live With: The Costs and Benefits of Leather Alternatives

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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 (chej.org) since it contains chloride and emits dioxins when incinerated. Meanwhile, fish skin-based leather shows promise. Andrew MacDermott of Autralia's Mermaid Leather (mermaid leather.com.au) 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 (jelinek.com) and Corx (corx.com) 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. …