Vegetable Tanned Leather VS Chrome Tanned Leather
It seems like part of a process that really shouldn't matter to the end user but here I hope to outline some reasons as to why sourcing the BEST quality leather is as important to you as it is to me.
This is a subject I really care about, most brands out there source leather that uses the cheapest (and most toxic) type of tanning: a process called Chrome Tanning. And here I will attempt to outline why this method isn't good for the environment and ultimately you, and how it shapes up next to the type of leather I source, the Eco Named "Veg Tanned" leather. Hold on to your hats your in for a nerdy ride.
Tanning, what is it?
Firstly to better understand the differences let's discuss the why's. Essentially, this process is what turns hides into actual bona fide leather. This process largely is achieved by removing water from the protein that makes up skin (Collagen for those who want to know). This process on paper sounds like it would dry-out and makes the hide brittle right? Well, this is why for literally THOUSANDS of years people have been soaking skins in natural tannins (hence the name Tanning). This process dehydrates the leather, replacing the water molecules with tannins. These tannins bind with the collagen preventing it from going brittle and stiff essentially transforming the skins into leather.
But what is a tannin?
In all, it is not a simple process, it requires a huge amount of skill, patience and care. And It takes up-to 2 months to complete and it has to mostly be done by hand.
Industry called for a quicker method
In the mid 1800's tanneries looked for a way to expedite the process of tanning to save money and offer a quicker turnaround on the painstakingly slow, complex and skilled process of Vegetable Tanning. Chrome Tanning was born in 1858 achieving a 2 month process in just one day. Using a cheaper mix of chemicals (primarily chromium, hence the name). Since this has been the preferred method of tanning leather, being the process used for over 90% of the worlds leather.
Environmental and Physical Impacts
Unlike vegetable tanning, Chrome Tanning doesn't use raw hides but rather part-tanned skins that gives the hides a distinct blue colour. The tanning process works exactly the same in principle - apart from chromium salts, not tannins are used. I wont bore you with the science on how this works but it means the leather is a lot thinner and softer straight off the bat. This sounds great right? actually it is not. Its dreadful for the environment and for people too. Every year all around the world blue tinted chrome tanning waste water, polluted with chemicals and heavy metals such as lead, chromium, methylisothiazolinone and formaldehyde is unsafely dumped onto agricultural/ land all around the world. Widely linked with a multitude of health issues in both people and local wildlife, causing problems with eyes, lymphatic systems, kidneys, skin, liver and lungs.
I had the misfortune of going to a Chrome Tannery in Morocco, and I cannot emphasise how much of a negative experience it was.
It is just Short Term Gain for Long Term Loss
Like any quest to cut corners and production costs, compromises must be made. With leather this manifests as a considerably less durable product with a considerably shorter lifespan compared to its vegetable tanned brother.
Expediency and cost cutting also bleeds into other manufacturing processes. In attempts to cut down time spent per product other corners will naturally be cut, such as edge finishing, rather than traditional burnishing (a physically demanding, and time consuming process I take great pride in doing myself) it is quicker and physically easier to finish the edges with a varnish or acrylic, needless to say these processes do not last.
Many brands have shown a lack of integrity by favouring volume and profit at the sacrifice of quality. All while causing considerable damage to the environment and to the people in these areas.
Veg tanned leather Pros:
- Has no negative environmental or physical impact, uses only natural tannins
- Vegetable tanned leather generates a natural patina, improving its look over time
- Uses an ancient skilled method using fairly paid craftsmen
- If properly looked after, it wont crack or dry out
- Maintains the natural character of the piece, will show imperfections nuances
- Initially, it is a bit stiff and has to be broken in to become fully flexible and functional. Will soften with use
- Tends to be a little duller than chrome tanned leather
- Vegetable tanned leather takes 30-60 days to produce, making the products generally more expensive
Chrome tanned leather Pros:
- It is quick and cheap and can be automated. Making end product cost less
- The character of the leather remains unchanged during the product’s entire lifespan (some see this as a pro)
- It is thinner and softer than vegetable tanned leather (some see this as a pro)
- Huge environmental impact, especially in the third world
- Products do not wear well, or last very long
- Chrome tanned products do not feel natural and often smell chemically
It is fairly cut and dry, I do not like Chrome Tanned leather. It has a negative environmental and physical impact and in my opinion, should be banned.
However, safe to say, I am very careful about where I source my leather and I only get the highest quality Vegetable Tanned hides in from a single family run tannery.
If you have any questions don't hesitate to get in touch. I plan on writing more blogs about the process of making my harnesses and leather goods in the future so watch this space.
Written eating dinner in the fantastic The Chambers, Folkestone. Listening to the wonderful Keaton Henson: