Leather vs. PVC

After reading the 10 most suprising places to find petroleum, it seems that oil is the environmental villain du jour, and it’s seeping more and more into our everyday lives. As a Center for Environmental Health investigation reports, petroleum and toxic chemicals are finding ways to get even closer to us — by showing up in our closets.

The CEH tested purses from 100 U.S. retail stores made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Many people buy PVC purses and shoes for a cheaper, animal-free, leather alternative. But although PVC doesn’t require an animal’s skin, as the report suggests, it’s not a very earth-friendly alternative.

Many of the purses harbored shockingly high levels of lead, a known toxin linked with cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, and a host of other health problems. The levels of lead in some bags were 100 times higher than the “safe” level of lead set for children’s toys (though many scientists suspect there is no “safe” level of lead).

Some stores with lead-laden purses, like H&M, have promised to enforce better standards for products’ lead content. However, even if PVC products don’t contain high levels of lead, the other ingredients in these purses are far from safe.

In addition to lead, some of PVC’s disturbing ingredients include: chlorine, petroleum, pthalates, and the carcinogen DEHP. The production process puts harmful chemicals like these, along with dioxin (linked with immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine system damage), and VOCs (which you may recognize as that “new car smell”). VOCs are associated with headaches, fatigue, nose and throat discomfort, among other ailments; some are suspected to cause cancer.

Since PVC is a #3 plastic, it’s usually not recyclable. Either it sits in landfills, or people try to recycle it, which ends up ruining the recycling of other plastics. Either way, PVC is a waste nightmare.

If you’re thinking that since PVC isn’t green, leather could be an option — think again. The tanning process for leather is also an extremely toxic ordeal that can involve cyanide, arsenic, and other chemicals linked with nervous disorders, asthma, skin and respiratory disorders, among others. Residents in Woburn, Massachusetts, saw a disturbing increased rate of childhood leukemia cases after a leather tannery was constructed nearby. Tanning produces waste (the hair, salt, and a slurry of insoluble matter that’s on the animal’s skin before it’s tanned) that is dumped into the environment and can poison waterways.

And then there is the animal welfare issue; many people assume leather is a by-product of the meat industry — the animal’s skin has to go somewhere, why don’t we make use of it? But this is a common misconception; cows for leather are often completely different than the cows used for meat, which means more water, land, and other resources are used to raise and slaughter these cows. Furthermore, they often come all the way from India, so the hides cause even more pollution when they are shipped around the world.

If you decide to detox your closet, some earth-friendlier options are available. Leather look-alike items made with polyurethane (PU) are considered safe. Some other eco-friendly materials are organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo. Anything recycled is also a good idea. Matt and Nat make sleek, stylish, non-leather bags that are made from recycled bottles. Olsen Haus and Cri de Coeur make very chic, eco-friendly, upscale shoes. If you’re looking for more casual eco-footwear, I like Autonomie Project’s Ethletic shoes, which are vegan, made from organic cotton,  and sweatshop-free.

It’s inevitable that some toxic chemicals and petroleum products will enter our life, but it’s also important to do what we can to make our lives and our planet healthier and greener. Get informed, find ways to detox your life, and do your part to kick our oil addiction.

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Donna Hamilton
Donna Hamilton3 years ago

Thanks for the info.

richa blue akasha
Rich Blue3 years ago

Please spare the helpless animals avoid leather!! Leather is not meat by product..:(( they are bred and killed in most ghastly manner in the 3rd world countries , often times just babies to make leather and suede...Please abolish this horrific practice ...Compassion for all alike...its 2012, lets evolve..!

richa blue akasha
Rich Blue3 years ago

Nether!! Why when animal friendly/earth-friendlier options are there.

"Leather look-alike items made with polyurethane (PU) are considered safe. Some other eco-friendly materials are organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo. Anything recycled is also a good idea.//" Interesting thank you for sharing

KS Goh
KS Goh3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Elizabeth P.
.4 years ago

how about neither ...

Angelica S.
Angelica S.4 years ago

Jeeze both sound like terrible ideas!

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS5 years ago

Aside from the toxic ingredients in PVC and the inability of the materials to biodegrade, there's also the factor that animals die a far more horrifying, cruel death from oil spills (like starving to death or dying from ingesting oil after the Gulf oil spill, or through the destruction of their natural environmens) than animal killed quickly and far more humanely for leather.

Plus, living in the far North, I discovered soon after immigrating that that fake leather cannot take the radical shifts in temperature from outdoors to indoors in the winter (-50 degrees outside to 70 degrees inside), and end up splitting, cracking and falling apart in a matter of weeks instead of lasting for years like leather. I wouldn't be surprised if more animals died from the search for oil to frequently replace PVC products than died to make the no-need-to-replace leather gloves, boots, handbags and jackets....

Debi C.
Deborah C.5 years ago

I really don't like to buy leather OR PVC, they are both really toxic. Occasionally I do end up with shoes made of one or the other, but for the most part I try to avoid them, and end up with things like cotton canvas instead.

Tracie P.
Tracie P.5 years ago

I love OlgenHaus shoes, but they don't make my size): I am a 5 to 5.5. Hopefully one day! I wanted those splattered paint booties so bad from a couple seasons back!

Doris Chetcuti
Doris Chetcuti5 years ago

I used to buy only leather bags, but reading some articles made me aware of so many things.