Misleading leather labels and consumer confusion

Misleading leather labels and consumer confusion

Genuine leather is a much sought-after commodity. It offers qualities that make it the best choice for products like upholstery, car seats, shoes and accessories. Yet, when you go out to buy something there’s a fair chance a product, labeled ‘leather’, is not what you expect it to be. Misleading and even false labeling of products has become a widespread practice, confusing and confounding consumers everywhere.

Genuine leather or something else?

Leather has certain benefits when it comes to resistance, durability and tactile properties that no artificial material offers. Quality leather is also costly and labeling upholstery or other items as “leather” legitimizes boosting the price. If you buy a desk chair of leather, that looks scuffed and scratched after only months, you’ll think twice about investing in leather, wouldn’t you? It denigrates the whole industry to throwaway, low-price products, and that’s a shame.

What causes much of this misuse and confusion is the usage of certain leather labels, namely: genuine leather and bonded leather. So what do these terms actually mean?

Genuine leather label

British Standard Glossary of Leather Terms (2015), aligned with the centralized European standards, defines leather in the following manner: hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible, where the hair or wool may or may not have been removed, whether or not the hide or skin has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning and where any surface coating or surface layer, however applied, is not thicker than 0,15 mm 

  • Note 1 to entry: If the tanned hide or skin is disintegrated mechanically and/or chemically into fibrous particles, small pieces or powders and then, with or without the combination of a binding agent, is made into sheets or other forms, such sheets or forms are not leather.
  • Note 2 to entry: If the grain layer has been completely removed, the term leather is not to be used without further qualification, e.g. split leather, suede leather.

Cosumers are often misled in creative ways. Leather Dictionary displays some examples of leather fibres glued onto a fabric base, trying to pretend to be genuine leather. Marketing reconstructed materials, split leathers and other materials that don’t fit the above definition as the genuine article has become a wide-spread practice.

Bonded leather is not leather

Leather shavings and leftovers from the leather production process are often used to create what is called ‘bonded leather’ (also reconstituted leather, blended leather or leatherboard). According to the above-mentioned British Standard, bonded leather can’t be called genuine leather, as shredded material is not “more or less intact”. Nevertheless for products containing this material the word leather frequently used, while ‘bonded’ is conspicuously missing from labels.

Damaging the reputation of quality leather

Misuse of these labels occurs frequently. Not just for mixed material products, like vinyl-matched upholstery or the use of bonded leathers, but also by changing or leaving out words out when marketing artificial leathers, like in this example. Often products marketed as such, are of inferior quality and can’t even be classified as leather. Not only is this misleading consumers about the nature of their purchases, it also has a negative effect on the good name leather has, its heritage and craftsmanship.

These bad practices have been subject to various court cases and trade organizations have been cracking down on misleading or comparative advertising. Yet, the damage appears to have been done and the current confusion about materials labeled ‘vegan leather’ is only amplifying the confusion on what real leather is.

Customer confusion in data

In surveys, the effect of misleading labeling becomes abundantly clear. Consumers are unclear what leather actually is and how to distinguish it when purchasing products. A few examples:

  • 20% of consumers believe materials like MB-Tex and NuLux are leather (they are man-made plastics).
  • 30% of consumers believe vegan leather is (partly) made of animal hide.
  • 55% of consumers believe PU (polyurethane, which is plastic) leather is (partly) made of animal hide.
  • 20% believe bonded leather is genuine leather.

The legal case for proper leather labeling

False advertising has been under scrutiny for decades and clear laws have been set down in every country concerning the nature of deception. The United States Federal Trade Commission defines deceptive advertising as follows:

It is unfair or deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, the kind, grade, quality, quantity, material content, thickness, finish, serviceability, durability, price, origin, size, weight, ease of cleaning, construction, manufacture, processing, distribution, or any other material aspect of an industry product. (Federal Trade Commission, 1996)

Other legal institutions provide statements of a similar nature. The European Commission (2006) states misleading and comparative advertising is not allowed when it concerns the nature, composition and material features. Similar standards are found everywhere. For this reason, for some products like footwear, labeling has very specifically defined by part and material type (European Commission, 1994).

It comes as no surprise that there have been many court cases already concerning misleading advertising. Particularly the furniture industry has seen its share of issues concerning the labeling of composite materials with well-defined terms (Roth, 2018) and even selling 100% polyurethane items as ‘leather’ (LaFreniere, 2017).

A leather car interior

Like in other industries, the automotive industry has had its share of cases on falsely claiming interiors are leather. The use of bonded materials was an issue for Toyota for example (Zalstein, 2013). The lack of a clear definition of a leather interior trim has caused problems though, like a more recent case concerning the Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet seats, which contained an artificial material (Wilde, 2019). In some cases, the percentage of leather for a full, half or simply leather trim is clearly defined (BS EN 16223:2012* sets 80% for a leather trim), but in many cases, it isn’t. This lack of clarity and product transparency is the root of the problem. Luckily, this is rapidly changing.

Italy's Council of Ministers approved the "leather" decree on the use of the term in 2020. COTANCE has called on the EU Commission to follow the Italian example. 


*BS EN 16223:2012, ‘Leather — Requirements for the designation and description of leather in upholstery and automotive interior applications’,
5 Requirements
5.1 Where the term “Leather” is used as a descriptor, at least 80 % of the expected surface area (or volume, as appropriate) of the component being described should be leather.

Sources:

  • British Standards Edition (2015) Leather — Terminology —Key definitions for the leather trade [BS EN 15987:2015]], BSI Standards Limited.
  • European Commission (1994) Directive 94/11/EC Of European Parliament and Council on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States relating to labeling of the materials used in the main components of footwear for sale to the consumer. Available at: EUR-Lex. [Accessed 5 March 2020]
  • European Commission (2006) Directive 2006/114/EC Of European Parliament and of the Council concerning misleading and comparative advertising. Available at: EUR-Lex.[Accessed 5 March 2020]
  • Federal Trade Commission (1996, October 3rd) Federal Register. Vol. 61, No. 193. Rules and Regulations 51583
  • LaFreniere, M. (2017, June 29th) Target Class Action Says ‘Leather’ Furniture Falsely Advertised. Top Class Actions. Available at: Top Class Actions. [Accessed 5 March 2020]
  • Roth, K. (2018, April 8th) Misleading labels fool furniture buyers. Lethbridge Herald. Available at: Pressreader. [Accessed 5 March 2020]
  • Wilde, D. (2019, February 24th) Man Gets Payout On Mercedes Leather Seats That Aren't All Leather. Motor1. Available at: Motor1. [Accessed 5 March 2020]
  • Zalstein, David (2013, February 12th) Toyota Australia forced to act on ‘leather’ issue by ACCC. Caradvice. Available at: Car Advice. [Accessed 5 March 2020]