Q. Animal rights issues aside, which is worse for the environment — leather or pleather?

– Devon, TX

A. While no one’s done a detailed life-cycle analysis to comparing the two (as far as we can tell), leather seems to have more environmental drawbacks than might be obvious at first glance. First, there are all the problems associated with livestock production in general. These will be familiar to anyone who’s heard the environmental argument for vegetarianism — trees are often cleared for the animals’ pasture, feeding them is energy intensive and the animals themselves produce methane. Plus, most livestock are administered lots of antibiotics, which isn’t good for the consumer or the environment. And beyond that, the leather tanning industry is also downright nasty.

“To change animal skins into something that’s durable instead of something that would decompose quickly, you have to use some extremely toxic chemicals,” says Shari Kalina, co-owner for TheVeganStore.com. Kalina says that environmentalists are increasingly joining the animal-rights crew in seeking out leather alternatives from her company. Leather tanning involves chromium and other heavy metals which can leach into the groundwater and are linked to a host of health problems, including leukemia. (In fact, it was a leather tannery that was at the heart of the real-life case that A Civil Action was based on.)  In the US, many tanneries have become Superfund sites, and overseas, especially in developing countries with lax environmental standards, the tanning industry has drawn concern from environmental and labor groups and the UN.

Is all of that worse than faux leather made of petroleum-based plastics? After all, they’re also energy-intensive and produce hazardous byproducts of their own. It’s hard to say for sure. But it might be helpful to know that “pleather” is rarely made with the environmental (and fashion) nightmare plastic known as PVC anymore. Even mainstream non-leather alternatives are usually a blend of cotton and polyurethane, which, while hardly eco-friendly, is at least a little bit less problematic than PVC. But maybe the safest bet is to avoid both. There are loads of materials — from recycled tires to tree sap — that can be used to make fabulous bags, boots or upholstered chairs.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008