The fashion industry is a world constantly in flux, with new trends springing up in the blink of an eye. But amid the ever-changing styles, leather has remained a fashion favorite for years. The material is durable, beautiful, and effortlessly chic. Even so, eco-friendly leather lovers often take issue with certain practices and chemicals used in leather tanning.
The most popular leather tanning techniques in the fashion industry are chrome tanning and aldehyde tanning — methods that subject tanners, leather wearers, and the environment to harmful chemicals, such as chromium salts and formaldehyde.
Is there a way to create beautiful leather products without using dangerous chemicals and carcinogens? There is, it’s called vegetable tanning. This classic leather preparation technique has been largely overlooked in recent times, but it’s seeing a resurgence among consumers who want leather products to be absolutely gorgeous and eco-friendly, too.
What is Vegetable-Tanned Leather?
To understand vegetable tanning, you first need to understand what tanning is. Every leather accessory (be it a belt, wallet, or jacket) begins its fashion journey by being tanned. The tanning process uses chemicals to change the protein structure of the animal hide leather is made from, making it stronger, preventing decomposition, and giving it an appealing surface quality.
Over a century ago, leather was treated with a substance tannin (hence the name “tanning”) — an acidic chemical compound found in tree barks and plants. Tannin was replaced with chromium salts around the time of the industrial revolution, and vegetable tanning quickly became an old-world, artisanal method of preparing leather.
Yet, even today, vegetable tanning remains the best tanning method for creating beautiful leather that ages well. The vegetable tanning method is responsible for leather that is highly durable and develops a beautiful patina — that supple, worn-in look — with age.
Recognizing Vegetable Tanning
When you buy vegetable-tanned leather, you’re getting the eco-friendly leather tanning choice, plus the best method for creating leather of elite quality. But how can you spot vegetable-tanned leather when you see it in a store? Here are some tips for recognizing it:
Take a look: If you know what you’re looking for, you can easily spot vegetable tanned leather. Vegetable-tanning produces a grainy-looking leather (versus the uniform look of chrome-tanned pieces). Also, vegetable-tanned leather tends to be a more natural, earthy color, while chrome-tanning allows for a variety of colors.
Sniff it out: In the past, you might have noticed a chemical smell coming from your leather accessories. That indicates chrome-tanning. The tannin used for vegetable-tanned leather leaves behind a distinct, earthy smell. So, take a whiff of a leather item before you buy it.
Feel it: You can also detect vegetable tanned leather by feel. Pick up the item and move it around; if it’s sturdy and not very pliable, you’re probably holding vegetable-tanned leather. The leather isn’t very supple at the start, but it breaks in and becomes quite supple over time.
The Pros (and Con) of Vegetable-Tanned Leather
You might wonder, “If vegetable-tanned leather is the best, why are chrome- and aldehyde-tanning the most common tanning methods?” The answer lies in the manufacturing practices of the fashion industry. The industrial revolution ignited a demand for mass production with a fast turnaround, and the fashion industry hasn’t slowed down since.
Chrome- and aldehyde-tanning are more efficient than vegetable tanning. It takes about two months to properly vegetable tan a piece of leather, while chrome-tanning takes a matter of days. It can also be difficult for fashion houses to find tanners who are both experienced in vegetable-tanning and have the capacity to tan thousands of pieces of leather simultaneously.
If vegetable tanned leather has a downside, it’s that the comparatively small number of vegetable tanned products produced makes them cost more than items mass produced with faster, cheaper tanning methods. However, for eco-friendly leather fans who want superior products, paying a little extra is worth getting leather that isn’t made with toxic chemicals, has a long life, and takes on an attractive, weathered look with age.
If you’re a lover of leather products and the environment, be sure to look for vegetable-tanned leather the next time you go shopping. Not only will it give you a beautiful product that can last a lifetime, but you’ll be doing your part to help preserve planet earth.