Where does my leather come from and should I care? Leather traceability
Ever wondered where the leather used to make your furniture comes from? Chances are that the 8 million cattle or 24 million sheep hides processed every year in Australia have contributed the leather you enjoy in the comfort of your home or office. Leather is big business globally with an estimated annual value of $60 billion. In Australia alone, revenues from leather are estimated at $730 million.
Interestingly, most of Australia’s leather is produced for export in the form of salted skins and hides, and may sometimes be finished in other countries, such as Bangladesh, before being imported back into the country.
With such a confusing movement of hides around the globe, it may be difficult to trace the leather back to its country of origin, and understand how the leather was produced, as well as the quality and ethical aspects of its manufacture.
Traceability is important
Knowing the source of your leather is important because it can help you make a more informed choice the next time you go shopping for leather furniture. Leather isn’t just leather. Leather comes in different qualities, such as texture and outward appearance, depending on the animal from which it is sourced. This in turn has direct implications on the comfort, cost and maintenance requirements of the piece of leather.
Leather goes through a series of complex industrial processes before it becomes the finished product that we know. You may be familiar with the word tanning, but did you know that it comprises five distinct stages, namely: pre-tanning, tanning, selecting, dressing, and finishing? In a nut-shell, the skin or animal hide initially undergoes soaking and lining, while at the finishing stage, the skin or hide is treated to give it the desired texture, colour and shine.
The bulk of leather comes from four animals: cows, goats, pigs, and sheep. There are, however, other animal sources, such as reptiles, that are used. Let us examine these sources more closely:
If you are looking for soft and luxurious leather, leather made from lamb skin is a perfect choice. The downside of this leather is that it is not very tear-proof and in a few years is likely to overstretch and lose its shape.
This is an ideally abundant leather. Highly durable leather requires minimal care and maintenance. Its’ heavyweight nature has made it a particularly strong leather material that is highly tear-proof. Cow skin leather is ideal for a person who wants a leather piece that is durable but is easy to clean and maintain.
Unlike cow skin, pig skin leather is softer and has a supple feel. Pig skin is actually considered to be of lower quality when compared to cow skin leather, and though water resistant, it cannot withstand high amounts of heat and so must not be exposed to direct sunlight. One of the best ways to identify pigskin leather is to run your hand across the surface; you will notice it becomes lighter as you move your hand in one direction.
The front cut of python skin is one of the most popular snake skins used in leather furniture. Snake skin leather is a highly sensitive type of leather that requires extreme care and is especially susceptible to damage from moisture and extreme friction. Snakeskin leather is, however, durable due to its tough design. Moreover, its many natural markings and colorings easily blend in a wide range of décor themes.
How to tell quality leather from ordinary leather
The finish applied on leather can easily deceive most customers into thinking that all leather is the same. This is far from the case. Learning to test the quality of the leather is essential. To test for top- grain leather, look for natural blemishes since top-grain leather is derived from the outer-most part of the skin. Nubuck leather, on the other hand, should have a velvet feel to the touch. If the leather is pigmented, expect it to have a cool feeling upon touching.
Also look for subtle markings because they distinguish a natural from a synthetic material. Basically, the quality of leather should feel warm.
Ethical sourcing of leather
Most buyers of leather may not be overly concerned with where their leather comes from. However, in the modern world of high fashion and “I would rather go naked” campaigns, ethical sourcing of leather products is becoming more and more common. How humanely animals are treated at the slaughter house is now a subject of controversy and, to the discerning leather buyer, may actually matter a lot.
Reports of animals being skinned alive and being kept in overcrowded slaughterhouses have from time to time been exposed by animal rights activists, leading to blanket condemnation of leather products.
Use of the vegetable tanning process is now gaining popularity as a viable and environmentally friendlier alternative to the traditional chrome tanning process. This means that leather products no longer have to be associated with toxic products during their manufacture.