People have always relied on animal skins for warmth, housing, and functional objects. But in these modern times when most of us no longer hunt our own food or tan those deer hides ourselves, many people seek alternatives to fur and leather for various ethical or ecological reasons.
The ethics of vegetarianism and veganism are well known, but the environmental impact of leather is more complicated. Jonathan Harr's book A Civil Action--and the subsequent movie version it inspired--raised our awareness of the toxic and polluting effects of the chemicals involved in leather manufacturing and processing. Because of these chemicals, most leather is not biodegradable, though some leather manufacturers have scrambled in recent years to clean up their industry and produce cleaner, biodegradable hides with less toxic waste.
Meanwhile, vegan alternatives to leather products abound in the form of everything from couches to shoes and can be just as stylish as their leather counterparts. But they also have a wide range of eco-ratings and aren't automatically green just because they're animal-free.
Over at Chic by Nature we found a handy round-up of the various leather substitutes and their origins.
- Vegetan: A microfiber material designed and used as a leather substitute.
- Lorica: Made of several microfibers and used by Italian footwear company, Sidi?known best for its champion biking shoes but also admired for its motorcycle boots (undeniable added cool quotient here).
- Birko-Flor Birkenstock's baby, made from acrylic and polyamide felt. A spin-off of the regular Birk sandal variety looks more like pleather.
- Birkibuc: The younger Birk sib, made of the same fibers but with a nubuck leather look.
- Kydex: An acrylic-PVC alloy manufactured by Kleerdex.
In the end, that vintage leather jacket could be greener than a brand-new vegan alternative. It comes down to knowing your own priorities and balancing those with your needs and preferences. It's not difficult to find out what's in what you're buying or how much poison it's going to add to the landfill. Armed with information, you do what you can with what you have to work with.