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Leather facts

The properties and value of leather

About this essay

Elton Hurlow has combined academic, professional, and commercial roles in a career in the international leather industry that has spanned more than 30 years. He started as a research chemist with the South African Leather Industries Research Institute (LIRI) and then relocated to the US in the late 1980s, where he worked in various capacities at different tanneries, all part of US Leather Holdings Group. He joined the chemical supply company Buckman in 1997 and is currently its global market development manager for leather.  He is a past-president of the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (2008-9), an executive committee member since 2004, and is current chairman of its Liaison Commission. He is a life member, and past-president of ALCA (the American Leather Chemists Association) and a member of its editorial board. His degrees include a BSc (Hons) in chemistry, MSc with distinction, and an MBA. Mr Hurlow has published a number of studies and articles on a range of topics and is a well-known speaker at industry symposia.

This essay tackles the following misrepresentations:

Myth: Synthetic materials are as good as leather.
Fact: Some synthetic materials can imitate some of the properties of leather, but none can emulate all the qualities of leather.

Executive summary

The value of an article may be defined as a function of its performance during use and perceptions of its uniqueness or desirability.

Leather has a good reputation for durable performance and it is widely perceived as a luxurious material that wears well and ages gracefully. The leather manufacturing industry has significant vested interest in supporting its position in the market as a material of high value.

The tanning process builds on the natural properties of leather to ensure the natural protein bio-material is made resistant to microbial attack and remains stable at elevated temperatures. Leather’s mouldability, durability, and moisture management properties make it a premium material. When the performance properties of leather are combined with the appeal of the way the material looks, feels and smells, it is truly deserving of its reputation as something special.

Leather is featured as a premium material by many of the world’s leading manufacturers of consumer brands. It is used to promote the desirability of their products. Using the term leather in a product’s name invokes a favourable emotional response in the minds of most consumers. Leather is a feature of the article and promoted as selling point.

Synthetic material replacements exist for all leather end-uses and are becoming increasingly competitive. Synthetics, made increasingly to look and perform like leather are also favoured by some manufacturers of articles because of cost. Some retailers use confusion surrounding leather material identity for profit; the word ‘leather’ is sometimes abused at point of retail. Sales people are often not much help in enlightening the customer about the differences between what is and what is not leather, nor about the true benefits of quality leather. A number of brands and retailers intentionally design in lower-cost synthetics hoping to cash in on consumers’ perceptions of leather as a luxurious, durable, and noble material.

To add to concerns, influential voices in fashion and in animal rights campaign against the use of leather. This is unfortunate, as leather can be made sustainably, without undue damage to the environment. Confusion in the mind of the consumer can detract from the desirability of leather.

Ingredient or component branding is one of the most rapidly growing segments of marketing today, especially with global brands. The desired result of such a strategy is a win-win partnership between component manufacturer and brand. In a world of alternates and substitutes, this essay argues that it is critically important to clearly differentiate leather as the component product of choice.

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