Does non-leather ALWAYS get an eco-friendly pass?

by grechen on August 30, 2010 | SUBSCRIBE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK |

Is everything listed as non-leather, “certified vegan leather,” or faux leather automatically eco-friendly? Is faux leather (usually petroleum-based) eco-friendly just by virtue of that fact that it’s NOT leather?

Take for example Urban Expressions – a faux leather handbag company – and the title on their website: “Luxury, Vegan Leather, Eco-Friendly Handbags and Accessories.” In this case, “eco-friendly” seems like just a trigger phrase they’re hoping will entice people to buy; they give no evidence on their website that their company, products, or business practices are at all eco-friendly…

faux leather not eco-friendly

In my own opinion, not eating meat or consuming animal products of any kind is THE ECO-FRIENDLIEST way to live (although I do not live that way, nor is it easy to achieve), but substituting leather with plastic is the wrong way to go. In the short term, yes, faux leather is possibly less impactful than leather, but as a way to “be eco-friendly,” over time, I’ve really come to believe that 100% cotton canvas bags or fabric bags are preferable to faux leather. Even recently, there was a study that some faux leather bags contained trace amounts of lead (Urban Expressions made the list), which is absolutely known to be harmful.

What do you think? should faux leather bags automatically be given an “eco-friendly” pass?

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susie August 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Thank you for calling attention to this ‘eco-friendly’ vegan bag business.
Most vegan bags are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) an unstable, unrecyclable petroleum product that emits noxious toxic gases when manufactured. PVC products are now only made in Asia because of US laws. In addition PVC is an unstable material filled with pthalates that are proven to be bad for your body and the environment. YUCK just say no to PVC which are NOT eco-friendly.

David August 30, 2010 at 5:26 pm

It’s a good question. At my company we evaluate products on their own merits, not the lifestyle of the people who might use them. While I think a vegan who uses a bag made out of PVC might be evaluated as having a more eco-friendly lifestyle than a meat-eater with a leather bag, the bag itself might be a bad choice.

However, I think the question of weather a leather bag is more eco-friendly than a faux leather/plastic bag is debatable. It depends on how the leather is dyed, where it is manufactured in relation to where it is being purchased (i.e. how far has the bag traveled via fossil fuel powered transportation to reach the store?), and whether or not it can be recycled. If the faux leather bag can be recycled into another faux leather bag, then the material may have a long, useful life. What if the faux leather bag lasts 5x longer than a leather bag? Think of all the hides, toxic tanners, acids and other chemicals used to treat the leather used in 5 bags vs. the chemicals used to make one faux leather bag. Traditional leather tanning is a toxic industry.

Also, you may be right in your assumption that a 100% cotton canvas bag may be greener than leather or faux leather. However, I think this may only hold true if the bag is organic cotton. According to a 2007 study by the Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK, traditional cotton production is responsible for 16% of global insecticides – more than any other crop. The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). So, while the end product of traditional cotton may not be that harmful (although the chemicals used in producing cotton do remain in the fibers of the finished product and may cause immediate problems to those with high chemical sensitivity), the process of creating that product is.

Overall, I think the safest bet is to use a bag made from organic cotton or other organic material.

grechen August 30, 2010 at 5:49 pm

you’re absolutely right, about everything. whether or not one type of material is better than another depends on about a million things (well, almost) and as i’ve always tried to say here, it’s up to the individual to decide which is best. i would be very interested in the comparison between chemicals used in and by products of producing conventional cotton and pvc manufacturing though…just to see what’s “worst.” and agreed that traditional leather is a non-starter, but recycled leather is probably preferable to vegan leather in terms of eco-friendliness (maybe not if you’re a vegan), and vegetable tanned leather is being used more and more…

you can go around and around and all over the place trying to decide what’s “best” – i just try to encourage people to think of what’s “better” and get as many facts about the product/company as possible before making a decision. EVERYTHING matters when trying to be eco-friendlier.

Mandi August 31, 2010 at 12:57 am

Amen, sister! I always get irritated when companies email me about their new “eco-friendly vegan bag” but have absolutely no reasoning behind the claim that it is eco-friendly. There are so many new and exciting materials available now (and old and exciting..hello recycled!) that I think the PVC route is totally inexcusable.

deana bracken August 31, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I’m in agreement with just about everything here. Imported, Vegan faux leather is not terribly “eco”! I do, however, believe that’s not AT ALL difficult to forego animal parts in your diet and/or your wardrobe. I’ve been doing it for 4 years and it’s remarkably easy for me (granted I live in LA… Which is definitely more Vegan-friendly than most places). But I have to say, when I do go back to the rural midwest to visit family – it’s not a problem to maintain my beliefs there either. Thank God for vegetables, seasonings/spices and online shopping!

Diane Barnard September 11, 2010 at 5:30 am

I think there is another question here that one of the readers hinted at, i.e. what happens to all the “stuff” we get rid of for various reasons. While that “stuff” may not be eco-friendly to begin with, as long as it is around why not re-purpose it and get as much wear and use out of it as possible? Why just trash it, let it pollute or wind up in some third world country when it could be used as long as possible to in the US? Until the world is using eco-friendly products for everything, it is important to make the best use of existing materials to prevent pollution as long as we can and to extend the usefullness of a material as long as possible. Re-purposing is another aspect of the total ec0logical picture. Organic materials are the goal but as long as there are non-organic materials in use, make the best use of them while they are around.
Re-purposing, upcycling, recycling, whatever you want to name it is not a new idea at all. What are vintage items after all? What do smart mothers do as an economic necessity in order to take care of their children? They pass clothes down to other members of the family, swap with friends until a garment or whatever cannot be used anymore, or remake clothing into something else all out of economic necessity. One of the dangers of the eco-movement that we must guard against is becoming elitest and exclusive…not everyone can afford to buy organic. Let’s face it…it is expensive still. So let’s adjust our thinking some as we try to move toward the goal of totally organic. Let’s re-purpose an item as long as possible before trashing it. We live in a throw-away society so another way to buck the system is to give an item as many lives as possible.

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