Perhaps you’re in search of a new purse, some new shoes, a belt, a briefcase—whatever strikes you as an investment. You know leather is a good material, one that lasts. You go off into a store blindly and look solely for the buzzword “leather”.
As with most things, the words on the tags of that jacket or the sign next to the gorgeous purse are usually underwritten and tricky, especially if you don’t know much about how such things are made. Which most people don’t, this is how you can sell people lots of low-quality items.
Wait, there are types of leather?
Yes. Just as there are different varieties of cotton or wool, though leather isn’t so kind to animals. Here they are in the most basic of terms:
- Full Grain Leather: this is the top layer of the hide, not sanded or buffed, therefore it’s thick and strong. Develops a nice patina over time and it is the top of the line in terms of leather.
- Top Grain: this is the leather split from the imperfect hide surface and sanded or buffed to be made thinner and look nice. Because it’s been split from the scarred, cow-branded, or blemished layer it’s not as strong and it doesn’t age nearly as well. It is however, easier to work with and what you’ll see most often with luxury items like designer handbags.
- Genuine Leather: Ah, the word genuine seems to mean something good. In fact it’s to signify what’s left after you split off the top layer of leather to be made into luxury goods. It’s not good under stress and a lot of the time it will be spray-painted to look as if it’s a higher grade.
- Bonded Leather: This leather isn’t quite leather. It’s the leftover scraps and shavings of leather stuck together and processed like vinyl to resemble leather. It’s weak and degrades quickly.
So when it comes to purchasing something, full-grain and top-grain are the way to go, especially if you’re looking for something that is going to last. Take care to check that the item is “made of” those leather types in lieu of “made with”. Making something with a type of leather could mean just a pocket, piece, or section.
How do we make leather?
Leather needs treatment before you go around wearing it, because otherwise that would be really gross.
You’ve got to tan the leather. This is the part where you nod, since you’ve heard of it, but you don’t actually know what it means. Let me help: you extract all the unwanted parts on the animal skin, extract all the natural oils, add oils in a drum for hours and hours, and then dry the leather.
There are two modern ways to tan leather: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Let’s break them down.
- Chrome tanning: This is a tanning process that uses chromium salts to link collagen (these are the structural proteins in mammals that make up connective tissue like bones, cartilage, tendons, and so on) in the animal skin together. There is some concern as to the management of chromium in this process and sometimes there are possibilities for skin irritation with prolonged contact on skin. However, chrome tanning is very quick with desirable results—therefore it’s favored in the industry.
- Vegetable tanning: With origins that go back hundreds of years, this process uses oak, chestnut, and hemlock bark among others in lieu of the chrome salts used today. In this process, the tannins found in the leaves and bark of trees bind to the collagen to make the hide more resistant. The leather produced this way is often less flexible and thus typically used for luggage, furniture, and so on. This process can take up to one month.
There are alternative methods and materials used in modern tanneries, which include tanning with iron salts, zirconium, titanium, or alum—these substances make the process more eco-friendly. Though, such alternative methods are hardly as popular as chrome tanning.
What’s wrong with real leather?
In terms of what concerns consumers about real leather, we’re talking about waste and treatment of the animals who are, sadly, needed to produce our shoes and jackets.
Cows release methane when they’re being used to make leather and all of that methane contributes to global warming and pollution. If that’s an issue for you, then it would be wise to discover where exactly the cows who generously donate their lives to you come from if real leather is on your wish list.
Many people derive a sort of comfort in the idea that their leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, leather can be much more profitable than the meat industry in some cases and, like most businesses in this economy, they will cater to the more profitable venture.
And it only gets more complicated from there. The tanning process promises more obstacles for ethical and eco-friendly purchasing. Chrome tanning produces toxic waste, especially in countries with lighter regulations (as opposed to the US, which has rather stringent laws for leather-making), the concern being on hexavalent chromium. Outside of being a potential carcinogen, it’s what 95% of the world’s tanneries are using to tan their leather.
What’s worse? They often dump the toxic byproducts of tanning into local bodies of water which are used for drinking water and for irrigation. That’s a lot of sick people.
So the solution must be vegetable tanning, right? Not so. The byproducts of vegetable tanning often contain dangerous bacteria that can make people sick.
Maybe the answer lies in the newly popularized term “vegan leather”…
Is vegan leather any better?
Vegan leather is pleather, for all intents and purposes.
I just needed to get that out of the way.
What does this mean? It’s made from plastic, a non-biodegradable material. You have a few options here, the main ones being PVC or polyurethane.
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, was a popular choice for a long time, but there are major concerns over the release of dioxins when they burn. There is also the issue of a substance called phthalates added to PVC to increase flexibility, but it can leach out onto you and your body. The toxicity levels of those phthalates depend on the item.
As for polyurethane, it’s a more complex faux leather and therefore more expensive. It’s also produced using solvents, which can be toxic.
So no process is perfect…what is one to do?
So where and what should I buy?
At the end of the day, having all the best possible information you can on both leather and pleather is going to lead you to make the best decision for you.
Choose leather and you may want to verify the tanning practices, where it is produced and who is producing it, what the conditions are like for those who tan and produce it, and the cows who are supplying the leather.
Choose Vegan Leather and you may want to find out what your faux leather is made out of, the output of toxic waste, and if you’re all right with the lack of biodegradability of your product (500 years for degradation of polyurethane.)
Or, like with fur, choose vintage pieces and give them more life—they’re already made. Part of the issue with leather and its toxic byproducts is the overwhelming demand (curse you, consumerism!)
For now, check out these sites for leather and vegan leather options:
Oliberté: fair trade leather shoes ALL made in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The leather is from, tanned, and worked with all in the same factory. Workers are treated ethically and offered health services, as well as a portion of each shoe’s profit.
Reformation: Eco-friendly, water-saving, vintage-sourced clothes. It’s a hip and ethical girl’s dream. Leather here is vegetable tanned, chrome-free.
Bourgeois-Bohème: a UK-based company that makes vegan shoes.
Melie Bianco: Polyurethane in lieu of PVC made products. Made in China via a Profit Sharing Model where working conditions include age restrictions, paid vacations, and more. PETA approved.
Matt & Nat: Started in Montréal, Matt & Nat (Material and Nature) uses non-animal products and eco-friendly substances. Bags for every occasion, shoes, and small things like notebooks.
FOUNT Leather Goods: Cleveland-based ethical purses. Eco-friendly tanning, leather sourced from Florence Italy, and all made in Cleveland.
Bisous and choose well,
Sources and Further Reading: