Synthetic vs Leather: Which is More Sustainable?
If you've ever heard the synthetic v. leather debate, it probably sounds like one side is all about being kind to animals, while the other is about authentic style at the cost of bloodshed. Like everything in life, though, the issue is rarely that simple. Because, as pointed out by Mother Jones, there are pros and cons to absolutely every environmental issue. The same is true when it comes to deciding whether you're going to wear clothing made from real animals, or if you're going to use plastics and vegetable oils for your boots, belts, and jackets.
What Are The Real Issues For Synthetic vs Leather?
Leather has its problems. The idea of animals being raised and killed for their hides, whether it's to make fur coats or motorcycle boots, is the sort of issue that causes a visceral reaction in people. After all, we have the technology to make materials without killing animals, which means there's less suffering, and we don't spend the resources it would otherwise take to breed, raise, and process those animals.
Or do we? Because while pleather might sound like an ideal solution, it has its own set of drawbacks. For example, pleather tends to be made from plastics (which come from petroleum feedstocks), or from vegetable oils. The former means we're still using an environmentally unsafe material (oil), and we're creating more waste products from petroleum. This can be mitigated through recycling efforts, but it is not a problem that can be overlooked when discussing sustainability. Vegetable oils also require a lot of land, resources, pesticides, etc., in order to grow the necessary vegetables, in addition to the costs of processing the oils, and turning them into pleather. These are many of the same drawbacks that come with biofuels. Lastly, while artificial leather is often cheaper, it tends to degrade at a much faster rate. So, while a leather pair of boots can last for ten years or more, pleather boots may need to be replaced in only a fraction of that time.
There Are Solutions, if We Look For Them
Just because the leather v. synthetics fight isn't simple, doesn't mean there aren't ways we can make one, the other, or both, more sustainable. If we're willing to find those solutions, and implement them.
For example, there is a project in Louisiana that takes nutrea (an invasive species that looks a lot like giant possums), and uses their hides to make fur coats. Because these animals are being hunted and killed anyway, as they're doing damage to the environment, using their hides cuts out the concerns about raising animals specifically for their skins. It is, in a very real way, like biological recycling.
A similar tactic could be used for plant-based leathers, if they used different base oils. For example, instead of corn oil (since corn is a water-intensive plant to grow, and it requires the kind of farmland that supports a food crop), pleather could instead be made from hemp. Hemp, though not currently allowed for commercial purposes in the U.S., is a plant that will grow in practically any conditions (meaning there's no need to use the kind of soil we could use for food crops), and it's hardier and more robust than corn, and other plants currently used to make pleather.
Both genuine and artificial leather can be made sustainable, if we put our shoulders to the wheel and push for policies and practices that look at the long-term effects on the environment. However, we need to be willing to put our money where our hearts are, and to back companies that are giving us environmentally conscious materials until that becomes the norm.
Photo by NordWood Themes