Web and social media are a real treasure trove of information, but they often turn out to be unreliable, if not fake.
Vegetable tanned leather is one of the most controversial topics: some people confuse it with a plant-based product (therefore “vegan”), or mistakenly compare it with chrome tanned leather, while others consider all tanning processes as equally pollutants.
In the latest months we have collected several “fake news” on leather sole and vegetable tanned leather and we have decided to gather the most common doubts in this blog post, hoping that it will help you in your next purchases.
1- What is vegetable tanned leather?
Vegetable tanned leather is a product of animal origin, generally bovine, ovine or caprine hides, by-products of the food industry. In order to make them suitable for craftsmanship, the hides are subjected to tanning, a process capable of stopping their decay and making the leather resistant to wetting, supple and pleasant.
It is defined as “vegetable” because the substances used in tanning (the so-called “tanning agents”) are tannins, natural extracts derived exclusively from vegetable sources such as chestnut and quebracho wood, gall nuts or tara pods.
2-Does vegetable tanned leather require the killing of animals?
Absolutely not. No animal is killed for the sole purpose of using its skin, as happens with furs. The tanneries recover and re-use the waste of the food industry. Despite the spread of a new food sensibility, which encourages vegetarian or vegan practices, the consumption of meat around the world has not decreased at all, on the contrary it has considerably increased.
In fact, according to this BBC article, meat production has increased fivefold from the 1960s to the present and, in 2017, reached 330 million tons. Either being it positive or negative, this is a reality we need to face. In this context, the tanning industry plays a key role because it allows the recovery of waste that would otherwise cause serious hygiene problems and would require special disposal with high management costs.
3- Are vegetable tanned leather and vegan leather the same thing?
No, these are two completely different materials: leather is a product of animal origin, so it’s not the ideal purchase for those who choose a vegan lifestyle. But be careful when you hear expressions like “vegan leather”, “eco-leather” or “leatherette” because they sound ambiguous: the word “leather” should always and only refer to products of animal origin, in order to avoid any misleading information in purchases.
4- What is the “vegan leather” made of?
The so called “vegan leathers” are non-animal origin materials, which means synthetic or plant-based. Among the synthetic materials, the most used are generally PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which are actually plastic materials, made from oil. This raises concerns related to their disposal and recycling at the end of their use cycle, especially considering that they can wear out faster than vegetable tanned leather.
On the other side we have the plant-based materials. Like leather, they are made from food industry waste, such as apple cores, orange peels, mushrooms, pineapple leaves, cork, etc. Even in these cases, however, it is good to be careful: in fact, some compounds may include the addition of plastic materials or glues to strengthen their consistency and make them more resistant. If we want to be really environment-friendly in our purchases, it is better to ask one more question.
5- How should the “vegan leather” be defined then?
It is often referred to as “artificial leather”, “faux leather”, or “imitation leather” to stress the idea that is similar to leather, but a completely different material. We can also use “PU leather”, “vinyl leather” or “PVC leather”. All these definitions can create misunderstanding among consumers since they should not include the word leather. In fact, there is legislation in many countries stating that “leather” refers to the materials that is processed from animal skin.
6- And “Eco-leather”? Is this term equivalent to “artificial leather”?
No! “Artificial leather” and all the above mentioned terms (“leatherette”, faux leather” etc.) refer to non-animal origin materials that present themselves as an alternative to animal leather for many applications, especially in fashion. “Eco-leather”, instead, indicates a type of animal leather produced “with reduced environmental impact” according to the UNI 11427: 2011 standard.
Unfortunately, retailers use often this label for artificial leather too, because the prefix “eco” is commercially more effective than the words “artificial”, “faux” or “imitation”, making consumers more and more confused!
7- Can tannins cause allergies?
Vegetable tanned leather is particularly suitable for allergic subjects: the whole process of vegetable tanning is carried out without the use of toxic substances or heavy metals. Being of vegetable origin, tannins are absolutely safe even for the most sensitive skins, including children’s. On the contrary, in predisposed subjects, chrome tanned leather could give rise to hives or even allergic dermatitis.
A further proof of the safety of tannins comes from our table: tannins are widely found in fruits, such as pomegranate, raspberries and cranberries, as well as in many drinks, such as tea and red wine!
8- Are tannins a synthetic chemical substance?
The tannins used in vegetable tanning are natural substances, extracted with eco-sustainable methods: for Tara tannin it is sufficient to grind the pods into a fine powder. For the chestnut or quebracho tannin, the wood is chipped and put in hot water, where it releases the tannin in solution, as common as a tea infusion. You can find all the details on the page “How to extract the tannin”. No chemicals are involved in tannin extraction.
9- Is vegetable tanning a polluting process?
Vegetable tanning is by far the most eco-sustainable tanning method:
- tannins are vegetable substances, safe for humans and the environment;
- sewage sludge can be easily recovered (and transformed into material for the creation of building bricks!)
- objects created in vegetable tanned leather can last for generations;
- once their life cycle is over, they can be disposed of easily and turned into fertilizers for agriculture.
10- How do you distinguish vegetable tanned leather from other materials?
Unfortunately, it is difficult for an inexperienced eye. But you can always trust your nose: vegetable tanned leather emanates an intense perfume, the unmistakable “leather smell” that a plastic material certainly does not have and that is scarcely present in the other tanning methods.