What is vegetable tanned leather?

Web and social media are a real mine of information, which often turn out to be unreliable, if not even bogus. Vegetable tanned leather with tannin is one of the topics on which conflicting news circulates: those who confuse it with a plant-based product (therefore “vegan”), those who mistakenly assimilate it to chrome tanning, those who consider tanning processes a priori as pollutants.

In recent months we have collected several “fake news” on leather and vegetable tanned leather and we have decided to bring together the most common doubts in this blog post, in the hope that it will help you in choosing your next purchases.

1- Vegetable tanned leather: a product of animal origin

Vegetable tanned leather is a product of animal origin: generally it is bovine, sheep or goat skins, recycled products of the food industry, which are subjected to tanning, a process capable of stopping its decomposition, making it waterproof and rot-proof. the fibers of which the dermis of the skin itself is formed.

It is defined as “vegetable” because the substances used in the tanning (the so-called “tanning agents”) are tannins, natural extracts deriving exclusively from vegetable sources such as chestnut and quebracho wood, gall nuts and Tara pods.

2- Does vegetable tanned leather require the killing of animals?

Absolutely not. No animal is killed for the pure purpose of using its skin, as happens with furs. Tanneries recover and reuse waste leathers from the food industry. Although a new food sensitivity is spreading, which encourages vegetarian or vegan practices, the consumption of meat in the world has not decreased at all, indeed it has significantly increased.

In fact, according to this BBC article, meat production has increased fivefold since the 1960s and reached 330 million tons in 2017. Positive or negative, this is a reality with which it is necessary to confront. In this context, the tanning industry plays a key role because it allows the recovery of waste that would otherwise create serious hygiene problems and require special disposal with high operating costs.

3- Are vegetable tanned leather and “vegan leather” the same thing?

No, these are two completely different materials: leather and vegetable tanned leather are products of animal origin, so they are not the ideal purchase for those who choose a vegan lifestyle. But beware of the expressions “vegan leather” or “vegan leather” because they can be ambiguous: the words “Leather” and “Leather” should always and only refer to products of animal origin, precisely to allow maximum clarity in purchases.

4- What is “vegan skin” made of then?

These are materials of origin other than animal, or synthetic or derived from plants. Among the synthetic materials the most used are generally PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which are in effect plastic materials, derived from petroleum. This raises the question of their recovery and recycling at the end of their use cycle, especially considering that they wear out much more quickly.

The materials of plant origin, on the other hand, are also reworkings of food industry waste, such as apple cores, orange peels, mushrooms, pineapple leaves, cork and more. Even in this case, however, it is good to be careful: some compounds may in fact require the addition of plastic materials to strengthen the consistency of the material. If we want to make a purchase that is truly in favor of the environment, it is better to ask one more question.

5- How should “vegan skin” be defined then?

It is often referred to as “artificial leather”, “faux leather” or “imitation leather” to emphasize the idea that it is similar to leather, but which is made of a completely different material. Also used is “polyurethane synthetic leather”, “vinyl leather” or “PVC imitation leather”. All these definitions are incorrect, contravening precise regulatory requirements, including Law 1112/1966. In fact, the term leather should only be used to indicate the animal origin of the raw material used.

6- “Faux leather” and “Faux leather” are the same thing? ”

No. “Imitation leather” is used to indicate all those materials of origin other than animal but usable for the same applications, especially in fashion. “Ecopelle” instead indicates a type of leather or hide (therefore of animal origin) made “with reduced environmental impact” according to the UNI 11427: 2011 standard.

Unfortunately, retailers often refer to “eco-leather” as “eco-leather”, because the prefix “eco” is commercially more effective, creating considerable confusion for the less experienced or distracted consumer.

7- Can tannins cause allergies?

Vegetable tanned leather is particularly suitable for allergy sufferers: the processing with tannins, in fact, is carried out without the use of toxic substances or heavy metals. Being of vegetable origin, the tannins are absolutely safe even for the most sensitive skin, such as those of children. On the contrary, in predisposed subjects, chrome tanned leathers could give rise to hives or even allergic dermatitis.

Further proof of the safety of tannin comes from our table: tannins are widely present in fruit, such as pomegranate, raspberries and cranberries, as well as in numerous drinks we take every day, such as tea and red wine!

8- Are tannins synthetic chemicals?

The vegetable tannins used in vegetable tanning are natural substances, extracted with eco-sustainable methods: for the Tara tannin it is sufficient to grind the pods until they are reduced to powder, while for the chestnut or quebracho tannin the wood is chopped into chips which, in contact with hot water, it releases the tannin in solution, as if it were an infusion. You can find all the details on the page “How tannin is extracted”.

9- Is vegetable tanning with tannin a polluting process?

Vegetable tanning with tannin is by far the most eco-sustainable tanning method:

  • tannins are plant substances, safe for humans and the environment;
  • the sludge resulting from the tanning can be easily recovered (and transformed into material for the creation of bricks for construction!)
  • items created in vegetable tanned leather with tannin can last for generations;
  • once their cycle of use is over, they can be disposed of easily and transformed into fertilizers for agriculture.

10- How can vegetable tanned leather be distinguished from other materials?

Unfortunately it is difficult for an inexperienced eye. But it helps the nose a lot: tannin tanning permeates the leathers with an intense perfume, the unmistakable “smell of leather” that a plastic material certainly does not have and which is not very present in other tanning methods.

The same difference is also evident in terms of softness and pleasantness to the touch. There are also brands that can help us, such as Vero Cuoio di Toscana or Genuine Vegetable Tanned Leather.

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