In a lather over fake leather - Times LIVE
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In a lather over fake leather

Wendy Knowler | 2016-01-26 00:12:51.0
LEATHER LIE: Dean Hayden's 'bonded leather' sofa, five years on

A few decades ago, when you invested in a leather lounge suite - and it was, indeed, a hefty investment - you knew you'd be getting something that would last for decades and 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 of a hide, after it had been split in 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 of turning that bottom split into coverings for furniture - splitting, embossing, pigmenting, coating with plastic - to make aspirational "leather" lounge suites affordable in 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, ability to breathe and durability of "full" leather.

And that's why I have a growing collection of photos from bitterly unhappy people around the country whose proud purchase cracked and peeled in the most hideous way, with no warranty in place to rescue them.

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

The company offered limited compensation and then stopped selling bicast leather furniture.

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

"It's the biggest con on the market," he said.

"It's a synthetic, 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 Europe and 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 , a body that has in the past negotiated 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 Leather 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.



Twitter: @wendyknowler

What kind of leather is this?

Dean Hayden bought two "bonded leather" couches from Decofurn in Port Elizabeth in 2010.

"I specifically remember being told how raw hides are split into layers, with the outer layer being used for 'full grain' leather upholstery, and the inner layers then being bonded to a backing for use on these items," he says.

"It looked and felt like leather, it even smelt like leather, and the price seemed fairly reasonable at the time - R9600 for both."

But five years on, the deterioration which began a few years ago is now extreme - the coating on the R4300 three-seater, for example, has peeled off, leaving huge pale, 'bald patches' on the seats.

"And Decofurn continues to advertise these 'leather' furniture items often," he said, calling it 'full-bonded leather' and using the official leather mark, nogal!

"I suppose the price should have been a clue."

I sought a response from Decofurn, with regard to its use of the word "leather" in large print in its advertising of "bonded leather" furniture, along with the leather mark, as well the company's claim, on its website, that bonded leather is "known for its durability".

Decofurn's Leon Jordaan said the company prided itself on its transparent dealings with its customers, and thus wanted to ensure "that there is no misunderstanding with customers, both existing and potential, regarding the communication and/or advertising of our products".

The company had therefore started to redesign a new logo and reword the "features benefits" of the different forms of "leather" coverings - polyurethane, bonded leather and leather upper products, he said.

A warning that bonded leather products do not wear well would be appropriate.


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