A member emailed The Vegetarian Resource Group back in December 2015 asking about vegan leather alternatives for Kindle covers. He’d come across many covers on Amazon claiming to be non-leather or even vegan because they were made with PU or polyurethane leather, which is made from plastic/polymer. However, when reading the products’ reviews, he realized there was confusion over what the label “PU leather” truly meant. He asked VRG to research the confusion over the term and other similar labels.
According to Colourlock, a European leather specialist, PU leather is used to describe both synthetic leather and bi-cast or split leather. According to Advanced Leather Solutions, a San Francisco based leather repair and restoration group, “Bicast products are manufactured by bonding a thick polyurethane coating to a split-hide leather or composite leather substrate.” Based on the information provided by the two leather companies, I concluded that PU leather has one of two meanings: A product is 100 percent plastic/polymer and is indeed synthetic, or a product is part plastic/polymer and part leather byproduct because of the leather substrate backing. Thus the confusion from the member.
Read more about what Colourlock said about the topic at https://www.colourlock.com/tip/furniture/pu-bycast-leather.html?store=usa
Read more about what Advanced Leather Solutions said about the topic at http://advleather.com/bicast.html
To find out whether or not this type of confusing labeling was legal, I turned to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC regulations for commercial practices in regards to select leather and imitation leather products are meant to protect consumers against purchasing non-leather products that are falsely advertised as leather products, not the reverse.
The first part of the regulations reads as follows:
24.2 Deception as to composition
It is unfair or deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, the composition of any industry product or part thereof. It is unfair or deceptive to use the unqualified term “leather” or other unqualified terms suggestive of leather to describe industry products unless the industry product so described is composed in all substantial parts of leather. This section includes, but is not limited to, the following:
(a) Imitation or simulated leather. If all or part of an industry product is made of non-leather material that appears to be leather, the fact that the material is not leather, or the general nature of the material as something other than leather, should be disclosed. For example: Not leather; Imitation leather; Simulated leather; Vinyl; Vinyl coated fabric; or Plastic.
All regulations for select leather and imitation leather products can be found at http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=da0fff93d248d84476b245ccfa2ce5bc&rgn=div5&view=text&node=16%3A220.127.116.11.14&idno=16
After reading the regulations listed above, it’s clear that terms like “imitation leather,” “stimulated leather,” and even “plastic” do not indicate whether or not a product contains some amount of leather. As long “as part of an industry product is made of non-leather that appears to be leather” it must be disclosed and labeled with terms like the preceding, leaving consumers to guess whether or not the product still contains some trace of leather or leather byproduct.
Listed later in the regulations, one suggestion is that a partial leather and partial non-leather product’s label read, “Bonded Leather Containing 60% Leather Fibers and 40% Non-leather Substances.” However, this percentage breakdown is merely one example that sellers may or may not choose to follow. As long as a seller has “an adequate disclosure” and does not claim the product is genuine leather when it is not, the seller is abiding by FTC guidelines.
Since reading the guidelines still left me with many unanswered questions, I contacted the FTC directly. I spoke with Susan Arthur, FTC southwest region employee who’s worked on the FTC regulations in previous years, and was told that protecting consumers looking to avoid products containing leather is “not the focus of these regulations.” Moreover, I was told that the regulations are “guidelines not law.”
The guidelines were written to help sellers follow a law called the Federal Trade Commission Act Section 5: Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices. Section 5 “prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” An act or practice is considered deceptive when “A consumer’s interpretation of the representation, omission, or practice is considered reasonable under the circumstances.” However, since “reasonable” is a vague term with a varied interpretation from person to person, the FTC also publishes the guidelines to help sellers navigate the ambiguous legal standards. Looking back to those guidelines, there are no suggestions to protect consumers who want 100 percent non-leather products.
To read more about Section 5, visit https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/supmanual/cch/ftca.pdf
When commenting on today’s consumer preferences toward cruelty-free products, Arthur said, “Marketplace changes and concerns are different from when these guides were originally passed.”
Because of changing preferences, the guidelines will undergo regulatory review and possible revision in 2019. Public input is highly encouraged prior to the review.
Instructions for submitting a comment regarding possible amendments to the leather labeling guidelines can be found at https://www.ftc.gov/faq/ftc-info/file-comment
Readers are strongly encouraged to submit positive, constructive comments that could lead to guideline modifications!
While Arthur contended that the guidelines do not protect against the misrepresentation of leather products as non-leather, she did say that consumers should file complaints if a product is labelled as vegan but still contains leather.
Directions for submitting such complaints can be found at https://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/submit-consumer-complaint-ftc
Until 2019, consumers will have to be vigilant and look beyond a product’s tag. To truly know the make up of a product prior to purchase, contact the seller directly or look on the seller’s website for more detailed product information. You can also search the various terms listed on the product’s tag or in the product’s online description, but please be advised that it may require extensive research to truly understand what a label means.
For information on sources of non-leather shoes and other items, see