Leather is one of the first materials to have been used by man from 10,000 to 5,000 years BC. Over time, we have been better able to understand and reveal all the unique characteristics of this ancestral material, which nevertheless often makes the headlines of passionate debate. Between traditional leather, vegetable leather or vegan leather, it is difficult for the consumer to see clearly at a time when environmental considerations take a major place in the act of purchasing.
Above all, it is important to differentiate the leather industry in France and Europe - subject to strict regulations - from other countries such as India or China whose standards are, unfortunately, very far from ours. health, environmental and social standards, particularly on working conditions.
In France, the name of leather has been regulated since 2010. According to the National Leather Council, it can be defined as “Material from animal skin, transformed to be made rot-proof”. The tracing of skins in Europe is mandatory and ensures that no skin of EU origin comes from an animal raised solely for its skin. This is the case for all Fleuron skins. This regulation is important because it assures consumers that animal skins intended to become leather come from the food industry. It is a global process of revaluing materials which helps reduce waste. The leather goods industry thus recovers skins to make everyday objects. In Europe, tanneries are subject to demanding European standards and regular controls which limit health and environmental risks as much as possible.
The main attractions of animal leather lie in its nobility and its qualities recognized for centuries: resistance, authenticity and durability over time. Leather will always be more beautiful if the animal has been well treated during its life and if it is made according to the rules of the art. Well maintained, leather can have a long lifespan and be passed down from generation to generation with much greater durability than synthetic leather.
Contrary to popular belief, leather can be repaired and recycled. Leather scraps in particular make it possible to create new objects from the same skin, which extends the lifespan of products in a virtuous way.
Vegetable tanned leather
Vegetable-tanned leather is animal leather whose tanning technique used (transformation of the animal's skin to make it rot-proof) is called “vegetable”. This is the oldest tanning method. Instead of using chemicals such as chromium or aluminum salt, the use of which is, remember, very regulated, vegetable tanning instead uses plant products such as bark, roots or other minerals. However, this process uses more water, takes longer to complete, is more expensive and limits the range of possible shades. At Fleuron, for part of our collection, we opt for “mixed” tanning, which combines the best of both techniques: resistance and the natural appearance of the skin.
Increasingly popular with major brands, vegan “leather” is a synthetic textile that aims to reproduce the qualities of traditional leather using various processes. It is therefore not real leather since it does not have an animal origin.
Is traditional leather really about to be replaced?
Let's first return to the definition of "veganism": it is a committed movement and a way of life that boycotts all animal products in food, cosmetics and clothing consumption.
There are two types of so-called “vegan” “leather”: natural fiber “leather” or synthetic “leather” (imitation leather). The first can be created from cork, hemp, fruit (pineapple is the most famous), linen or even cotton. The second is made of petrochemical plastic fibers but is still technically considered “vegan leather” since it does not come from animals.
If the first alternative seems promising, these materials cannot, at present, produce an object in a 100% natural way, their performance being limited compared to traditional leather. For a natural fiber handbag to resist over time, it needs to be covered with a polyurethane (PU) film, which is a synthetic material containing non-recyclable and non-biodegradable plastic with deleterious effects on health and the environment. Paradoxically, vegan “leathers” can have an impact on animals because of the polluting imbalances caused by petrochemicals (greater need for fossil energy and water production).
This reality is, however, in opposition to the values conveyed by this type of materials, of an ecological and responsible lifestyle. Some fashion players are capitalizing on the ambiguity created to sell seemingly “ethical” products. The main reason to buy vegan “leather” these days is more about the committed awareness of not wearing animal products than environmental considerations. As the products are not recyclable, they have a lower life cycle and quality over time than authentic leather, and can sometimes be considered “disposable” because they are difficult to repair. The term “vegan leather” ultimately leads to confusion for the consumer.
Transparency and sourcing: the essence of sustainability
For Fleuron, a slow fashion house of Fine Leather Goods, what was important for us in the choice of our materials was, above all, durability over time and what will happen to the product. Leather is incomparable in the sensory experience it creates, in its resistance and in its long-term quality. For us, it is above all about getting back to basics by working with partners who share our values of intransigence, transparency and sustainability.
We are convinced that traditional leather will experience further great progress in the years to come and can only encourage the sector to develop new, ever more virtuous alternatives, for a more sustainable world.