Better no leather than cheap rip-off imitations

A few decades back, when you invested in a leather lounge suite – and it was indeed a hefty investment – you knew you’d be getting something which would last for decades, and actually improve with age in that men’s club antique kind of way.

That’s because leather furniture was upholstered with the “grain split” or “top grain” – the top part of a hide, after it had been split into two; and it’s the nicest, strongest part.

The bottom bit, called a “split” is a much weaker leather, without the outer epidermis to hold everything together.

In recent years, the leather industry has come up with many creative ways to turn that bottom split into coverings for furniture – splitting, embossing, pigmenting, coating with plastic – so as to make aspirational “leather” lounge suites affordable to the mass market.

They call it “bonded” and “bicast” leather, and some suppliers attempt a description of what that entails, but all most consumers focus on is that lovely “Leather Mark” they use with it, not realising that it lacks the strength, breathability and durability of “full” leather.

And that’s why I have a growing collection of photos from bitterly unhappy consumers around the country, whose proud purchase went on to crack and peel in the most hideous way, with no warranty in place to rescue them.

Mr Price Home started selling a range of bi-cast leather sofas and chairs in 2005, and within three to four years the complaints of peeling leather were coming thick and fast, mainly from coastal areas.

The company offered limited compensation, and then stopped selling bi-cast leather furniture altogether.

Bonded leather is even more inferior than bi-cast leather and in fact, according to Hugo Zuanni of Leather Link – the exclusive Cape agent for South Africa’s largest upholstery leather tannery, Hannitan – being 85% synthetic, it’s not leather at all.

“It’s the biggest con on the market,” he says. “It’s a synthetic PU (polyurethane) with leather shavings sprinkled on the back to make it look like leather. And it comes in 30m rolls.”

Alarmingly, given the degree of consumer deception, it’s not illegal to call this “bonded” product leather in this country, as is the case in European countries and in Brazil.

The Leather Mark – a symbol instantly recognised by most people as an indication that a product is genuine leather – is owned in South Africa by the Skins, Hides & Leather Council (Shalc), a body which has in the past had talks with the Department of Trade and Industry to stop the abuse of the mark to mislead consumers, especially with regard to furniture.

Dare we hope that the abuse of the Mark will soon be outlawed, to protect consumers? It’s long overdue.

Meanwhile, if you can only afford a lounge suite covered in “leather” from a roll, rather than a hide, you’d be much better off buying a fabric one instead.