• Jess

Why Vegetable Tanned Leather?

I realise that many posts on social media and the product descriptions on this website harp on about the wonderful properties of the leather that they are made from. There are items in every high street shop that are stamped with ‘Genuine Leather’, so you might be wondering what the big deal is. There is, in fact, huge variation between leather types and quality.

Different functions- straps, bags, jackets, handles- require leather they use to have certain properties. These properties come from the animal that the hide belonged to, the tanning process it undergoes, as well as the treatment that it gets.

Before it becomes a useful material, raw hide has to be transformed into leather through a tanning process. Tanning removes the water molecules from the collagen in the skin – otherwise the hide would dry out and stiffen, becoming unusable.

Vegetable tanning is the most traditional, gentle and natural method of tanning. For thousands of years, hides have been tanned by being soaked in a plant based solution: using the tannins found in bark and other plant matter to alter the molecular structure and turn them into useable leather. This is a very slow, very gentle process that leaves a beautiful finish that will darken and soften over time, developing a patina and which has a deep rich smell. Vegetable tanned leather is high quality, durable and biodegradable, having undergone a complex process which takes skilled craftsmen to get right. Costs of vegetable tanned hides are very high due to the time and skill involved in the process.

90% of the world’s leather items are made using hides that have been chemically tanned. That is, using chemicals to penetrate the hide quickly and effectively to form a soft, uniform finish. Skins are often odourless, are waterproof and will not change in appearance over time. The downsides of this process are numerous: most importantly, the harmful effects on the environment and health. If not properly managed, chemicals enter the ecosystem with devastating effects – the EU has tightened laws on chrome tanneries, but in many places across the world there is little regulation.

The fashion industry is having a devastating effect on our planet, being the second biggest polluter in the world. The more you read about this, the more mind-blowing the situation is. Using vegetable tanned leather not only ensures that RBL is not adding to this environmental disaster, but also gives the items made here a texture, smell and look that you just can't replicate.