Understanding leather terms and labelling
Do you understand the difference between full grain and corrected grain leather? Do you also know how you should label your shoes by law?
As a footwear brand founder, I’m sure you’re aware of how many aspects of your business you need to have expertise in. Basically ALL of them! So I reached out to a very special interviewee to get you the facts.
Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano is Secretary General of Cotance, also known as The European Leather Association. I was keen to ask him about leather terms and labelling, how the European leather market is currently performing, and (of course) about Brexit.
1. Have you seen a down-turn in leather consumption in Europe in the last few years, or is the market stable or growing?
Leather markets are typically cyclical, where after a booming period of 4-5 years – in some leather types even 7-8 years – follow less buoyant leather sales. This has to do with the saturation of market niches, hides & skins prices and with certain fashion trends. However, the down-turn in leather consumption that we are witnessing lately seems to be more than that. Yet with leather prices becoming so attractive, I am confident that we will soon see a recovery.
2. What do you think are the reasons for this?
Millennials and Generation Z youngsters seem to be keen on experimenting with new or alternative materials to leather. Also, many consumers have been sensitive to the false and misleading leather-blaming by animal rights activist organisations. Leather is falsely accused of driving the slaughter of animals, which is simply nonsense; hides & skins are a residue of meat production and leather is a recycling product!
But the alternative narrative is very subtle and convincing. Leather has missed an opportunity to connect with these new generations and failed to speak their language. In today’s world of instant, global
3. How can designers tell whether a leather they’re using is full-grain, corrected grain, embossed or split?
That’s the beauty of leather! It is not only a beautiful and versatile material, but it is culture! Leather has developed an amazing terminological heritage! Clearly some terms will mainly be understood by experts and fans, but others are self-explanatory.
Your examples are very interesting: the term “full grain” is a leather bearing the original grain surface “as exposed by removal of the epidermis and with none of the surface removed by buffing, snuffing or splitting”, while “corrected grain” is a leather from which the grain layer has been partially removed by buffing “to a depth governed by the condition of the raw material” and upon which a new surface has been built by various finishes. These are the official definitions consecrated by the International Council of Tanners (ICT) in the International Leather Glossary. There you can also find the definition of “embossed leather”: Leather embossed or printed with a raised pattern either imitating or resembling the grain pattern of some animal, or being quite unrelated to a natural grain pattern. Finally, the term “Split” refers to a process termed “splitting” where a hide or skin is split over its whole area into several layers. The layers thus obtained are termed (i) grain split (outer split or grain); (ii) flesh split (inner split); (iii) in heavy hides there can also be a middle split. Consequently, a split is also the leather made from the flesh split or middle split. So, usually all leathers will be split, in particular the thicker ones made from bovine hides or similar, but when the term is used on its own it relaters to the lower layers of the hide, in contrast to the “grains”. Here the difficulty will be mostly to distinguish if a “suede” is made from a grain or a split. The looseness of the fibers at the surface may give some hints to the observer.
4. Are there differences in the way these types of leather must be labelled in Europe?
The Leather Industry has no difficulty in converging on definitions, but governments tend to make things difficult with legislation. Leather labelling legislation started with clear and simple leather authenticity rules banning the fraudulent and deceptive use of the term by rogue traders (France, Italy). Today there is a myriad of leather labelling laws causing a headache to traders of leather articles. Here you may find the most comprehensive collection of legal rules and standards.
Unfortunately, there is no uniform legislation on leather in the European Union. This is one of the reasons why leather has difficulties in making its identity clear to the general public. For example, a leather split cannot be called “leather” in France. It needs to be called and labelled “croûte” (split)! Also in Spain or Italy one ought to speak about “serraje” or “crosta” in case of a split, but it can be labelled leather. As regards to the other leather terms, only France has compulsory rules. Other European countries just oblige to stick to the truth in the advertisement of leather but do not force operators to use specific terms, such as full grain, corrected grain or embossed leather.
5. Do you think we should have a labelling system which denotes which animal’s skin a leather is made from?
No! I don’t think this is necessary or useful. There is EU legislation in place that bans cat & dog fur, and in France one is obliged to mention the “imitation grain” when the grain pattern of a different animal is embossed on a leather. But while the former ensures that the European ethical sensitiveness is not affected, the latter is, to my view, excessive.
What we need is a leather authenticity legislation which defines leather and the correct rules for the use of the term. Operators should be free to say what they want about the leather – if it is leather, of course – provided it is true. The label is not important. What is important, is the capacity of a consumer to get legal redress if he/she has been deceived, and the power of leather businesses and institutions to oblige rogue operators to withdraw their fraudulent communications; in short, a legislation that puts the burden of the proof on the wrongdoer.
6. Is there a way for shoe designers to tell which animal a skin comes from, just by look and feel?
It is relatively easy to distinguish leather made from hides (cattle, buffaloes, horses, camels and the like), from leather made from skins (sheep, goats, swines, calf, etc.).
The texture, the softness and the grain pattern will guide the observer. Now, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between the different species in each of these categories. Pig leather and Peccary is easy to identify because of the grain pattern of double hair follicle holes all over the grain surface. But between sheep and goats it is sometimes difficult. With the time and experience, one can get quite good in this art.
7. What impact do you think Brexit will have on the labelling of leather goods in the UK?
Well, it’s hard to say, but one thing is clear: UK will have the capacity to regulate this topic sovereignly without having to wait years for the Brussels’ bureaucracy to use its prerogative of legislative initiative.
Thank you for your in-depth answers, clearly informed by your years of experience in this field Gustavo. I think it’s important to hear from someone with such passion for the leather industry.
I hope you as a shoe brand founder enjoyed reading Gustavo’s answers about leather terms and labelling. There is so much to learn when you have a start-up or established footwear company. I know it’s hard to know where to focus your studies, time and money, in order to grow your shoe brand and achieve your goals. That’s where I can help.