One of our members found this photo the other day showing what looks like vegetable tanned leather but is actually called “Man Made Leather”.
In countries like Brazil and France qualifying leather in this way is actually illegal and in many others, it is considered cheating under the trade descriptions laws. The consumer is led to believe that they are buying all the benefits of leather whereas in fact they are not.
There is in fact a definition of leather which began in ancient times when European Governments worked hard to support the trade to stop people selling as leather, material that had not been tanned in the pits long enough (there was a thirty year long court case in Mechelen in Belgium between tanners and wall covering producers over rapid tanning in drums), being sold in the dark where defects could not be seen and being of doubtful material origin. Yet really serious issues began when we started to have vinyls, coated materials and bonded material. Where was the border line.
We go to the famous BS: 2780 which is The British Standard Definition of leather:
‘Hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible. The hair or wool may, or may not, have been removed. It is also made from a hide or skin that has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning.’
To use up the splits from the bottom side of a hide or to “upgrade” selections which have scratches or marks on it that might reduce the sales value, tanners were persuaded to add a a thick surface coating, which effectively is a plastic grain layer. This created a dilemma as to whether the consumer is getting leather or not. So the amount of surface coating applied to the leather influences whether or not the item can be described as genuine leather. So the definition of leather has a couple of lines added into it that say: ‘..If the leather has a surface coating, the mean thickness of this surface layer, however applied, has to be 0.15mm or less, and does not exceed 30% of the overall thickness’.
Bonded leather, which is most often the cause of controversy in the USA when consumers buy it expecting the durability of leather is also not properly leather. It is also covered by the BS 2780 definition:
‘Hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact… If the tanned hide is disintegrated mechanically and/or chemically into fibrous particles, small pieces or powders and then, with or without a binding agent is made into sheets, such sheets are not leather’
It would appear that the law in the US does not support these tight definitions so in some countries tanners have a battle on their hands and it becomes a job of continuous consumer education.
The item in the picture is not, however, the subject of consumer uncertainty as it is just a plastic coated textile. Sadly it would appear that during the 1990s and 2000s as hundreds of companies set up making a variety of coated plastics and some clever micro fibre suedes around places like Wenzhou in China, they were allowed to put terms like Synthetic Leather into the company name. In Chinese it is apparently clear that it is not leather but for us it is confusing and it is most unfortunate that it was allowed.
Brazil is now enforcing its Leather Law with visits and prosecutions, and is stopping people using terms like synthetic leather or man made leather, but in the rest of the world it appears to be very difficult.
What we do know is that this “man made leather” bag will not feel like leather, or smell like leather, nor will it last like leather. As it wears instead of developing character it will become ugly and the plastic will likely start to abrade or peel from the textile. It will not be possible to repair it, so it will quickly end up in landfill. A similar leather bag will last for years and appreciate a little care and attention. The leather will not show damage but perhaps a thread or a zip might need a small repair and it will then again last for more years.
A plastic bag is a liability, A leather one is a friend.