What is leather?

Redwood Comment
Published:  20 February, 2019
Dr Mike Redwood

An industry regulator in the EU awarded a buyer of a used Mercedes sizeable compensation for buying a car advertised as upholstered in leather, when in fact it was largely a PU coated textile of some sort. There were a couple of disappointing elements involved.

Firstly, that it took a consumer to initiate the battle and, secondly, that in their defence Mercedes said their claims “complied with rules which stipulate what can be described as leather upholstery in cars”. I had understood that there was an EU wide agreement about “decontenting” cars of leather by progressively replacing panels with pu or vinyl type materials, but thus it seems to imply Mercedes fought the complaint since they do not want to change.

When our industry colleagues from around the world began to look at this case, it became clear that no one was aware of any legal or quasi legal definition of leather that is used across the world. Some definitions definitely exist as Brazil has its leather law (nº 4.888) from 1965 which bans the use of terms such as “synthetic leather” or even “genuine leather”. France has a similar position regarding the use of “genuine leather” on the basis that leather is either leather or it is not, so “genuine” is a false qualifier. Germany also has a reputation for challenging those who make claims  for reconstituted materials to be leather.

Official definition

In the UK, the famous 1970s BS2780 definition prevails and I have often quoted it: “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. 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”.  

It is pretty clear that in the Mercedes case, which was in the UK, neither this nor any other definition was introduced. The arbitrator merely announced that their report said it “considered the description of the seats ‘misleading’, adding: ‘I think that if documents say the interior is leather, the assumption would be that this is fully leather.’”

We must get everyone using our definition.

Whatever decision the industry makes, its value will be in giving our definition widespread use. We must get everyone using it. We have complained enough across the industry about the disease of “passing off”, of adding the word leather as it is, like any recognised brand, shorthand for a bundle of superb attributes. This is the complaint we have about counterfeits, which like counterfeits for leather disappoint in use and damage the image of the real item.

It is time we agree a definition of leather and get every industry association and body across the world to adopt it. Every tannery in the world needs to be told to use it and not to compromise our industry by slack or careless use of terminology or greenwash. The science is on the leather industry’s side right now so we must be careful not to damage it through our own actions.

The world is turning against plastic, our main competition, and against fast fashion with its cheap, short lived items of clothing with tiny life cycles. Leather is not in this category of consumer capitalism. If you think how long leather lasts and define resource consumption by years of use it must be tiny compared to these throwaway items being replaced three or four times a year.

So, while we gear up for consumer activity to make leather cool again with younger generations we need some industry internal communications to make sure all industry stakeholders speak with one voice and have a clear straightforward definition of leather to put in front of regulators and legislators.

With so many new materials invading our space we need to be prepared.

Mike Redwood

February 20, 2019

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of "Redwood Comment" remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.