Is it better for the environment to wear leather or pleather?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 4 2007 7:43 AM

Whether the Leather Be Pleather

Or whether the leather be not …

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I've recently developed a soft spot for our bovine friends, so I'd like to avoid buying leather jackets in the future. The obvious alternative is so-called pleather, which is made from plastic. But if I buy a cruelty-free pleather jacket, am I negating my good intentions by screwing the environment? I shudder to think how much oil it takes to make a fake-leather trenchcoat.

This is the sort of question that maddens eco-skeptics, who are fond of pointing out that every manufactured product has an unavoidable environmental cost. If you can't accept that fact, the argument goes, then you're free to become a hunter-gatherer in the Australian Outback; otherwise, stop fretting and enjoy the warm, affordable jackets that your great-great-great-grandparents could have only dreamed of.

In terms of the specific dilemma you propose, the skeptics are right in one respect: Both leather and pleather are far from green. That doesn't mean, however, that you should give in to apathy when it comes to jacket materials. No, you're not going to single-handedly squelch global warming by making the right choice here. But as the Lantern contended long ago, personal choices do matter—dirty industries become cleaner only in response to consumer demand.

You're correct that pleather is essentially made of oil. The jacket material that attracts the lion's share of environmentalist ire is polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC. Greenpeace loathes the stuff, calling it "the most damaging plastic on the planet." The organization claims that PVC production releases dioxins and persistent organic pollutants, and worries about further toxic emissions when rubbished PVC is burned in garbage incinerators. (The vinyl industry strongly disagrees with this morbid assessment; the Lantern's own take is that while the industry has certainly made improvements, PVC remains a worrying source of dioxins in particular.)

Greenpeace reserves a bit less ire for a second type of pleather, composed of polyurethane. While toxicity isn't as much of an issue with polyurethane, the versatile substance is still made from fossil fuels, which means that plenty of carbon dioxide is emitted during production. According to the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe, producing a pound of polyurethane foam emits 3.7 pounds of CO2. (That makes the process slightly less green than burning a gallon of gas.)

There are greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the production of genuine leather, too, largely in the form of cow-generated methane. The real downside to leather is pollution, specifically stemming from the use of chromium in the tanning process. About 95 percent of the world's tanneries still use hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen. Too often, tanneries simply dispose of their chromium effluent in nearby streams; that water, in turn, is either consumed directly or used to irrigate farms, causing long-term health consequences for thousands of people.

Chromium-free tanning alternatives, like  tree bark, present their own problems: The waste from "vegetable tanning" can also be toxic, as it often contains lethal bacteria. Vegetable tanning can also take several months, whereas the same effect can be achieved with chromium in under a week. As a result, tanneries in the lightly regulated developing world almost always opt for chromium. Some trade agreements, such as a recent pact between Japan and Thailand, include stipulations that manufacturers follow environmental standards. But enforcement is always a challenge, especially when it may result in higher retail prices.

So, where does all that gloomy information leave you, dear consumer? If your conscience truly won't let you don leather, then look for a polyurethane pleather rather than one made from PVC. But you should also hold out hope that chemists accelerate their efforts to create polyurethane from vegetable oils.

The cruelty issue aside, however, some leather jackets may be the greener choice at present, provided they were produced in a green manner—for example, in tanneries outfitted with chromium recovery facilities or in ones that use enzymes in lieu of chemicals for pretreatment. Look for leather goods produced by companies and tanners that have signed on to the Leather Working Group, which is auditing the industry's environmental practices. You can also keep tabs on technological developments in the industry, such as the growing vogue for turning scrap leather into passable garments.

Above all, how about hitting the local vintage shop? Or, if you must go new, don't be a total cheapskate. A quality leather or pleather jacket will last for years, if not decades, making it well worth the investment in the long run. That lesson that applies not only to clothing, but to cars, appliances, and electronic goods, too. Sometimes the greenest choice isn't the product that labels itself as such, but the one you won't have to replace a dozen times over.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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