The possibility that the furniture industry is trying to pull a fast one with certain marketing claims has long been considered by many consumers. The issue is not so much the quality of the construction of furniture, but the materials used to make it. Specifically, there seems to be a growing selection of “leather” products that are often leather in name only.
Defining the Problem
Imagine this situation: while furniture shopping, you come across a leather sofa at a really good price. Wary of a deal that seems too good to be true, you ask the salesperson what the catch is and they tell you there is none; the sofa is made from “natural leather” and is the real deal. The next thing you know, you are the proud owner of a beautiful “genuine leather” sofa for your living room.
A few weeks or perhaps a few months pass, and one night you notice that your new “100% leather” sofa has a small rip in one of the cushions. You don’t give it much thought since leather is pretty resilient, but you notice over the next few days that the rip is getting larger – alarmingly so. Ideally, you should call the furniture store where made this purchase but perhaps you call an upholstery repair shop and, after inspecting the sofa, they tell you that the “leather” sofa you got such a good deal on is really a “bi-cast leather” or a “bonded leather” product of low quality. Unfortunately, you would not be the first person to be deceived in this way.
The use of bonded and bi-cast leather is growing rapidly in the furniture market, and it’s an alarming trend. This product is leaving more and more consumers feeling ripped off, as they watch their “leather” furniture fall apart before their eyes.
Types of Leather
To understand the problems associated with bi-cast and bonded leathers, it is important to first understand that there are different types of leather used in the furniture upholstery business, including faux leathers. It is also helpful to keep in mind that the definition of leather is a “material produced by tanning the hides of a variety of animals” ranging from cattle to kangaroo. Bear that in mind during this discussion, paying careful attention to how far from the definition certain manufacturers go when claiming their products are “leather.”
The Good Stuff
Aniline Leather: Raw leather is not fit for use as furniture material, because it will scuff, fade, and suffer damage too easily. To prevent this, leather is first soaked in an aniline dye mixture. The aniline solution is favored because it deeply saturates the leather with protective compounds while also bringing out the color and graining of the leather in a very clear manner.
Aniline dyed leather is typically divided into two categories – pure and protected. With pure aniline dyed leather, no pigments or coloring are added to the aniline solution. The result is a translucent highlight of the natural texture and color of the leather, much like one would see with a clear stain applied to a piece of wood. Pure aniline dyed leather will soften as it ages until it reaches the point where it will conform to your every move and match the temperature of your body.
There are two potential downsides to pure aniline dyed leather. The first is that the translucent nature of the dye will reveal blemishes in the leather. Because of this issue, it is estimated the process can only be used on between 5 and 7 % of all cattle hides. Additionally, the leather cannot be exposed directly to the sun lest the color fade quickly, so careful positioning away from windows is important.
Protected Aniline Leather: This is a step down from the pure dyeing process we’ve just discussed. With this variation, the aniline immersion is once again undertaken; however, the quality of the leather is usually a bit lower, so more blemishes and imperfects may be present. To counter this problem, the aniline solution is combined with a few pigments designed to mask the problem areas. The leather is then topped with a clear-coat protective layer to prolong the life of the material and help prevent fading. This form of leather is also sometimes referred to as semi-aniline leather.
Full-Grain Pigmented Leather: This is a twist on protected aniline leather treatment. In this procedure, the leather is given multiple layers of pigment and clear treatments to hide blemishes and strengthen it for the long term. The process can either include the aniline immersion or skip it. The primary downside to full-grain pigmented leather is that the leather will not soften as it ages, although it should definitely last longer.
Corrected Grain Leather: Imagine a situation in which you have a quality top-grain cattle hide, but it has a large number of blemishes and imperfections which render it useless as furniture upholstery. One solution is to go over the raw leather with hand tools and “correct” the major imperfections, after which the leather can be treated to the full-grain pigmentation process. The finished product will not have the striking grain striations seen in the previous types of leather we’ve covered.
The Fake Stuff
“Faux leather” is designed to provide the appearance of high-quality leather without the cost. Unfortunately, this compromise means the quality of the materials will be low. Faux leather tends to rip easily and the coloring can fade disproportionately, giving the furniture an appearance which cynics would call plague-like. The numbers of consumers who have purchased faux leather because of the low price, only to watch the furniture fall apart, are enormous. To help you understand why faux leather should be avoided, let’s take a look at the concept behind this “leather” and the most common types.
Splits: Why use animal leather for just one purpose when you can use it for four? This is the concept which led to the creation of leather splits. The hide is carefully cut into four separate layers. Think of putting a ham through a slicer to create lunch meat and you have the idea. The top grain layer of the leather is combined with other materials for use on furniture, while the remaining three layers are used in the fashion industry for everything from coats to shoes. The problem with leather splits is that the layers are so thin they can hardly stand any wear and tear. For this reason, most split leather furniture should be used solely for visual presentation and not for actual use.
Reconstituted/Bonded Leather: Bonded leather, also known as reconstituted leather, is perhaps the cheekiest form of fake leather available. Introduced to the market in 2007, this product only qualifies as leather – if you believe that a VW Bug qualifies as a Ferrari because both have wheels. Bonded leather consists of a number of vinyl and polyurethane layers affixed to each other. Mixed leather fibers are then glued to the underside of these layers. That’s correct; they aren’t glued to the top of the surface, they’re attached to the underside. The top layer of polyurethane/vinyl is then patterned and dyed to match the traditional look of fine leather.
You might be asking yourself: why have any leather fibers at all if they are just glued to the underside of the material where nobody will ever see them? Manufacturers have been predictably silent on the topic, but most people suspect the presence of these fibers is used to justify marketing claims that the product is “leather.” Considering how this material is made, it is not surprising that reconstituted leather eventually fails and sometimes in less than a year, with cracking, peeling, and discoloration which are all major issues.
Bi-Cast Leather: Bi-cast leather is perhaps the most offensive of the fake leather offerings on the market. This leather product is designed to appear as though it is the highest quality top-grain leather available, and sold at ridiculously low prices. These low prices lead unsuspecting consumers to purchase chairs, sofas, and other furniture made with the material under the illusion they are getting a heck of a deal – an impression that unscrupulous sales people aren’t eager to clear up. Ultimately, the consumer ends up terribly disappointed.
Bi-Cast Leather Problems
Bi-cast leather has a major defect. To understand it, one must first understand the nature of leather. Leather is essentially an animal skin comprised of different anatomical layers with incredible strength and decent elasticity. For example, leather is used as a protective suit by professional motorcycle racers who can fall while going 150 to 200 mph during races. While it does not protect against broken bones, the leather will not fail even with those types of high speed and friction, keeping riders’ skin protected in the event of an accident.
This strength has limits. If there is a defect in the leather, the strength is compromised as we have discussed with split leather, and bi-cast leather is nothing more than a form of fake split leather. The top layer that’s viewable on the furniture is the top grain layer from a sliced-up piece of hide. And underneath this layer, manufacturers use polyurethane mats; this is a very poor combination when it comes to strength. In fact, honest individuals in the furniture business will tell you that bi-cast leather will typically only last 6 to 8 months with normal wear and tear, possibly longer, if you’re lucky.
Think about that for a minute.
Your new sofa may not make it half a year before the “leather” starts cracking, ripping, and pulling away from the stitching. There have been reports of the material failing in as few as 3 months. In contrast, a genuine full-leather sofa which is properly maintained should last between 25 and 40 years.
To make matters worse, bi-cast leather cannot be repaired. The entire piece of furniture must be replaced, which goes a long way towards turning your original “good deal” into a horrendous one.
Lies, Lies, and More Lies
The old cliché is: “You get what you pay for.” Is this really true with bi-cast leather furniture? Remember, the top layer of bi-cast leather really looks like the finest leather you can buy. It is only when that thin top layer is pulled back that you can see someone is trying to pull a fast one.
In the view of many commentators, the sale of bi-cast leather products is a form of false advertising, one that agencies like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should crack down on. Unless a consumer is explicitly aware that bi-cast means fake, he or she is likely to believe he or she is buying high-quality leather for a song. The phrase “bait and switch” comes to mind.
At this point, you might be thinking that there should be a law against such practices. Well, there is – depending on where you live. In the United Kingdom and New Zealand, retailers and manufacturers are legally prohibited from advertising or marketing bi-cast leather as “leather” on furniture or other products. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the United States and many other countries.
In the U.S., there is no law whatsoever prohibiting retailers or manufacturers from marketing furniture with by-cast upholstery as leather. There isn’t even a requirement that the furniture contain a tag indicating that the “leather” isn’t natural. Consumers must simply educate themselves before they shop and learn to avoid bi-cast products completely. This seems rather odd in an age when even mattresses have warning labels.
Make an Intelligent Choice
Ultimately, what is considered an acceptable type of leather is a personal choice. In a perfect world, we would all be lounging on our pure aniline dyed leather sofas. In the real world, most of us don’t have the $4,000 to $6,000 such a sofa would cost.
To make a smart choice, it often is helpful to consider where you’ll be placing the furniture and the type of use it will see. A chair which will be placed in the corner for purely decorative purposes does not need pure aniline dyed leather. You can get genuine leather that is less expensive as long as it looks good; there is little reason to overpay for high-quality, fully-aniline leather you will never use.
In contrast, a piece of furniture which is going to be front and center in a high-traffic area of the home needs to be made from high-quality, durable upholstery materials. A semi-aniline leather might be the best choice, since it has the beauty of pure and protected aniline leather but can take the wear and tear of high use.
As an educated consumer, you are responsible for understanding what does and does not constitute quality leather. With the information above, you’re now able to intelligently select the best leather furniture for your needs, while also putting dishonest salespeople in their place.
This article was written by leathertec