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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 05:16 am

Instead of leather

There’s a wealth of earth-friendly alternatives to animal skins

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These nonleather high heels, made of stylish faux snakeskin, are offered by vegetarianshoesandbags.com.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VEGETARIANSHOESANDBAGS.COM.
Untitled Document Are there any good alternatives to leather?
Leather is everywhere — from shoes and belts to purses, wallets, jackets, furniture, and car seats. Most probably assume that the leather that finds its way into our wardrobes and living spaces is a byproduct of the meat industry. But even though cows are certainly the most popular animals for use in leather goods, in truth most of our leather is sourced from overseas, from countries like China and India, where a host of animals may be raw material for our bags and belts, including horses, deer, sheep, and, in more exotic cases, alligators or snakes, all of which may make an animal-lover or vegetarian queasy. Environmentalists have reason to forgo leather, too. The processing of leather requires copious amounts of energy and a toxic stew of chemicals, including formaldehyde, coal tar, and some cyanide-containing finishes. The tanning process is just as pollutant-laced and can leave chemicals in the water supply (as described in the bestselling book and popular movie A Civil Action) and on the hands (and in the lungs) of workers in the developing world. Tanneries are top polluters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, which identifies the most critical industrial sites in need of environmental cleanup. Because of their toxicity, reports organicleather.com, “many old tannery sites can’t be used for agriculture, or built on, or even sold.” That Web site is the home of Mill Valley, Calif., retailer Organic Leather, which offers a return to the tanning practices of old — using animals that are organically fed and humanely raised and a tanning process that uses plant tannins, vegetable tannins, or smoke to cure the leather, with zero toxicity in the process. But with the wealth of fashionable faux-leather alternatives, there’s no need to ever wear animal skins. So-called cruelty-free fashions have advanced in leaps and bounds, with variations on every style of handbag, wallet, belt, and boot. Online “vegan boutique” Alternative Outfitters even has a version of the ubiquitous Ugg boot made with microsuede “shearling” on the outside and synthetic wool inside, and Iowa-based Heartland Products sells Western-style nonleather boots and nonleather Birkenstock sandals. Science has come up with plenty of comfortable, durable alternatives to materials made with animal products. These include vegan microfiber, which claims to match leather in strength and durability, and Pleather, Durabuck, and NuSuede.
Products made with these synthetic materials tend to be less expensive than their leather counterparts and are being produced by major manufacturers like Nike, whose Durabuck athletic and hiking shoes “will stretch around the foot with the same ‘give’ as leather . . . and are machine washable,” according to company sources. And you won’t need to adjust your style, either. Vegetarianshoesandbags.com offers everything from purple faux-snakeskin peep-toe pumps for hitting the clubs to hemp sneakers with recycled outsoles that look skate-park-ready, to distinctive Pleather bags and versatile woven belts.
For more information: Alternative Outfitters, www.alternativeoutfitters.com; Heartland Products, www.trvnet.net/~hrtlndp; Organic Leather, www.organicleather.com; Vegetarian Shoes and Bags, www.vegetarianshoesandbags.com.
Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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