For consumers' sake, let's not call it 'bonded leather'

Susan Andrews, July 9, 2007

If you were tarred and feathered, would that make you a chicken? If you're selling "bonded leather" upholstery, it's a question you should consider.

The term "bonded leather" is convenient shorthand within the industry, but it's bound to confuse consumers, who are likely to hear only the word "leather." Even worse, true bonded leather is produced more like a paper product, which would be a terribly inferior cover for upholstery.

New composite fabrics now called "bonded leather" have a surface layer of vinyl or polyurethane, a center layer of fabric, and a backing that contains some leather fibers mixed with latex or other material, such as splits, glued onto the fabric for a look that is similar to the back of a leather hide.

Nick Cory of the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati describes the product this way: "On the outside, it's polyurethane embossed to look like leather. Then, to complete the effect, the manufacturer has glued on fibers (on the back) to look like leather."

There's nothing wrong with that, but we need another description for these products or we stand to lose credibility with consumers, something our industry can ill afford.

These are good products with plenty to recommend them. There's really no need to suggest they are leather. Most of these products are extremely durable. Oekopelle, for example, has been tested to more than 100,000 double rubs for durability, which exceeds industry standards.

That durability alone is a great marketing hook, not to mention the outstanding surface patterns that can simulate almost any leather look, and a manufacturing process that is less environmentally damaging than leather. But all that can be neutralized at retail if we aren't careful. No matter how much leather fiber is mixed into the backing, it's still not a leather cover, at least not in any way the consumer can see or touch.

Cory says calling these products bonded leather "is deceptive because it does not represent its true nature. It's a vinyl, or a polyurethane laminate or a composite, but it's not leather. If you tar and feather someone, does that make them a chicken?" Obviously not.

So market the daylights out of the performance, aesthetic and environmental appeal of a fine product. But don't call it bonded leather unless you're prepared for an ugly backlash when some litigious consumer decides he's been duped.

Why confuse a buying public that too often already considers shopping for furniture a headache?

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