What is Genuine Leather?

Table of Contents

    What Constitutes ‘Genuine Leather’?

    Like ‘gold’ or ‘silver’, ‘leather’ signifies a traditional material of value and quality, hence the application of the word to a product, reassures the buyer. The application of the adjective ‘genuine’, in the phrase ‘genuine leather’ would appear unnecessary, since the item is either leather or not leather. What the phrase ‘genuine leather’ actually signifies is that this is leather of the lowest quality.

    A Technical Definition of ‘Genuine Leather’.

    There is no global system for describing leather: rules about describing leather vary from country to country. Different countries have different regulations, some of which may be enshrined in law, some of which may be merely advisory. Consequently, the term ‘genuine leather’ may describe a variety of methods of production. The ‘genuine leather’ product may be made from ‘split leather’, the lowest layer of the hide which is then given a polyurethane coating and artificial markings. It may be reconstituted from several layers of left-overs which are glued together and embossed with a leather-like texture, this is otherwise known as ‘bonded leather’. In the worst cases, imitation leather has leather fibres glued to the back of it so that it can be described as ‘leather’.

    Definition of ‘Genuine Leather’ in Popular Culture

    The term ‘genuine leather’ is intentionally misleading: it is generally read as meaning ‘you can be confident that this is real leather’, when in fact it means: ‘there is a percentage of leather in this product’. ‘Genuine leather’ products are cheap to buy but are vastly inferior to ‘full grain leather’ or ‘top grain leather’ products.

    Faux Leathers - Can We Call These Leather?

    Leather is ‘material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process’ {OED}. So the short answer is clearly, no, however, the term ‘leather’ has such strong cultural integrity as a signifier of strength, durability, beauty, sophistication and craftsmanship that it is perhaps not surprising that it is appropriated as a descriptor to enhance the desirability of non-leather products. Faux leather products have been around for about a hundred years and were developed as a cheaper alternative to leather. They are known by a variety of names, which usually incorporate the word leather in order to promote the leather-like qualities of the material, such as, faux-leather, fake-leather, leatherette, pu-leather, textile-leather and pleather. The terms vegetarian-leather and vegan-leather seem particularly non-sensical and are a marketing strategy akin to making vegetarian food look like meat products. Faux-leather varies in its quality, but the best examples are impossible to distinguish from real leather just by looking at it. Faux-leather usually has a textile backing but with many faux-leather items it is not possible to see the backing without disassembling the product. Used as a cheaper option for shoes, clothing, furniture and particularly car upholstery, faux-leather lacks the breathability and durability of leather. There are, however, some applications for which faux-leather is better suited than leather. It is used for motorcycle seats and jet ski seats because it is more resistant to sunlight and water and it is used for examination tables because the disinfectant used to maintain cleanliness would damage the surface of leather.

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