Ahh, leather ... the word alone conjures up visions of luxury, sophistication and high prices, particularly if we're talking furniture. In fact, not very long ago a leather couch was likely to set the buyer back thousands of dollars, though it was also considered an investment piece that would age beautifully and last for years.
These days leather couches and chairs are advertised everywhere, and are often priced at well under $2000. But with the recent drop in cost comes the trade-off: not all leather couches are equal. In fact, some are not really leather at all.
At CHOICE we've heard from unhappy consumers who've bought 'leather' couches that turned out to be more plastic than animal, while others have found their furniture peeling and cracking in a way that genuine leather shouldn't, yet still don't know exactly what they have bought. And with no national standard for leather labelling in Australia, it's not easy to know exactly what you are buying when you see the word 'leather' on a label.
We investigate what you get when you buy a leather couch in Australia.
To get technical, the British Standards Institute defines leather as follows: "Hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible. The hair or wool may, or may not, have been removed. Leather is also made from a hide or skin that has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning."
The amount of surface coating applied to the leather influences whether or not the item can be described as 'genuine' leather. "If the leather has a surface coating, the mean thickness of this surface layer, however applied, has to be 0.15mm or less."
In a nutshell, there are three basic types of genuine leather:
The full hide of the animal has been used with minimal interference. It's the most durable kind of leather but also the rarest and usually the most expensive.
Top grain leather is the uppermost layer of the animal hide which has been buffed and polished.
Split leather is taken from the bottom of the hide; it's fairly fragile but it is the cheapest type of leather available.
Another common description, referring to any of the above leather that has had an artificial grain applied to its surface. Any imperfections are corrected or sanded off, and an artificial grain embossed into the surface and dressed with stain or dyes.
While the definitions above sound reasonably straightforward, if you go shopping for a leather couch, you might see the words 'cow hide leather', 'genuine leather', '100% leather' or made-up names like 'Lucia leather' or even 'bonded leather' instead.
None of these names really give any indication of what kind of leather is being used or if indeed it's leather at all. Bonded leather (despite the name) has more in common with synthetics and is technically not considered leather at all.
Other pieces of 'leather' furniture may have the 'contact areas' (such as the seats, arm rests, vertical seat backs and rolls) upholstered in leather, but the 'non-contact areas' (such as the outside arms and back) upholstered in a leather-like synthetic material.
While the UK has a leather certification and testing body, in Australia it's up to shoppers to do the hard work when buying a couch. We found several couches that were advertised as leather yet the fine print disclosed only the contact areas were actually leather, and with other retailers there was little to no information about what the various components were made of.
Paul Simmons, project co-ordinator at the Australasian Furnishing Research and Development Institute (Furntech), runs a voluntary certification scheme for leather goods in Australia. He says it's likely in many cases that while a couch may be all 'leather', it's made of differing types of leather, which can affect the quality.
Furntech's certification scheme is used voluntarily by some manufacturers and retailers in Australia, and the furniture that's been been tested will carry a swing tag confirming the certification.
Earlier this year, the Ikea website stated: "There's something special about leather sofas. It comes from their natural look and texture and the way they age so beautifully." Underneath was a range of sofas priced from $795 to $3000. Sounds good, but the devil's in the detail. It's only when you clicked on the individual pieces that it became clear leather doesn't always mean leather. One couch was described as being covered in a "durable fabric that has the same look and feel as leather" and is actually not leather at all.
Another couch was listed as being upholstered in leather in the 'contact' areas, meaning the seat and back cushions are leather but the rest of the couch is covered in a mix of coated polyester and cotton. While the information was there if you know what to look for, it was buried deep in the product specifications and wasn't particularly obvious.
CHOICE recognised Ikea's creative copywriting with a 2015 Shonky Award for their faux-leather couches. Within days, Ikea updated its Australian website to clearly reflect the different types of couches available in their leather sofas category – a 'genuine' win for confused consumers.
In 2010 Fantastic Furniture was pulled up by the ACCC for "misleading or deceptive conduct" promoting its 'Eurohide' and 'Pellisima' couches as "the luxury of leather for less".
However, the couches were upholstered in 'bonded leather'. Bonded leather is made from a mish mash of plastics and bits of leather glued together. The actual leather content in bonded leather was approximately 10%.
Furniture retailer Dare Gallery was also found to have engaged in "false, misleading or deceptive conduct" by representing furniture as being 'bonded leather' on their website, where users navigated to this description by clicking on the hyperlinks 'See all leather sofas' or 'See all leather sofa suites'.
Graeme Samuel, ACCC chairman at the time, said consumers seek out and often pay a premium for leather goods. "The ACCC will not tolerate traders in the furniture or any other industry misrepresenting predominantly synthetic materials as leather. If a trader chooses to use terms like 'leather' or 'hide' to describe goods that are only partially leather then they should also clearly disclose the fact it is not wholly leather to avoid consumer confusion."
CHOICE member Vicki recently contacted us because the leather couches she had bought for almost $2000 began to peel and flake after about five years of use. She says the material covering the armrests and back fabric looked and felt different to the seats and back cushions. When she complained to the retailer, she was offered another couch at cost price. After speaking to CHOICE Help, she was given a full refund. Vicki was told that while the original couch was actually all leather (and not part vinyl as she suspected), different types of leather of varying quality had been used all over the couch.
Another CHOICE member, Robert (not his real name), has been in battle with a well-known retailer after the 'genuine leather' couch he bought started peeling after just six months. He lodged a warranty claim, but after an assessment, he was told that the problem wasn't covered by warranty because the couch had suffered from a build-up of sweat and excess body oils. He says he wiped down the couch weekly and in no way treated it differently to his other leather couch, which is in perfect condition despite being eight years old. Robert is still awaiting a repair on the newer couch and still has questions around what it's actually made of.
According to Paul Simmons, genuine leather kept under reasonable circumstances shouldn't peel. "A corrected grain or genuine leather couch should not peel in most circumstances and definitely not in that [six-month] time frame. It could only possibly happen if the tanning process was extremely poor or it's not leather."
Our consumer law specialist Meredith Cridland has worked with several CHOICE members who've had problems with couches that were below the claimed quality.
She recommends you ask these questions, so you know exactly what you're getting before you commit to buying a new couch.
"What type of leather is this couch?"
Go for full grain or top grain leather, depending on your lifestyle and budget. Be wary of anything else, including split leather, bonded leather, pleather, faux leather, bicast, and synthetic leather.
"Is this leather used all over the couch?"
A couch might have real leather on the seats and the tops of the arm rests, but not on the back or the sides. These will deteriorate faster than the leather parts.
"How long is the warranty?"
And "what parts of the lounge are covered?"
"Can I have it in writing?"
Once you've asked the questions, get the answers in writing in case there are problems later on.
If you've been told that your couch is leather but it becomes clear that it's actually not, you should do something about it.
- Go back to the business and tell them you don't think the lounge is leather. Show photos if you can.
- You may have a right to a refund or a replacement, depending on the extent of the problem.
- If the business won't help, you can contact your state or territory's Fair Trading office for more information, or contact the ACCC.
- If you're a CHOICE member, contact CHOICE Help for advice and assistance.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.