Bonded leather surfaced in the furniture industry just eight or so years ago, often masquerading as genuine top grain leather. Since then, this less-than-stellar material has been commonplace in furniture stores and showrooms. Though types of bonded leather have been around since the mid-20th century, it recently gained popularity in the furniture industry due to its reasonable price tag, supposed environmental friendliness, and appeal to consumers who wanted the look of leather furniture without having to break the bank. The material, while perfectly suitable for book covers, belts, watch straps, and the like, was not originally intended for use on overstuffed furniture as an upholstery fabric. When used as an upholstery product, in just a few years or less of usage, the top layers of the material often begin to flake off and reveal its fabric backing along with its true identity.
So, what exactly is this man-made material in question? It is essentially a mixture of leather scraps and fibers left over from the production of real leather goods, and a bonding agent (polyurethane), which has been poured onto a fabric or fiber backing, embossed to mimic leather, and produced in sheets or rolls. The process used to create the material is not unlike the process used by paper manufacturing companies. There is a spectrum of quality levels, depending on the ratio of shredded leather and bonding agent. The quality level will of course determine its durability level.
The most pertinent question, however, is how does this impact the moving industry? During a move, much of this type of material is easily damaged. Once it is, it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to repair. Furthermore, uneducated consumers are under the impression that their bonded leather sofa or chair is in fact genuine leather and can be repaired as such. The actual leather content of the material could possibly be low–it varies depending on its manufacturer’s internal quality standards. Those that work in the furniture industry often do not disclose this information. There is rampant deception regarding this matter in the industry. For this reason, The US Federal Trade Commission has published Guides for Select Leather and Imitation Leather Products. Within the body of the guide, deception is addressed: “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”. Additionally, The US Federal Trade Commission has been quoted as saying, "The guidelines caution against misrepresentations about the leather content in products containing ground, reconstituted, or bonded leather, and state that such products, when they appear to be made of leather, should be accompanied by a disclosure as to the percentage of leather or other fiber content. The guidelines also state that these disclosures should be included in any product advertising that might otherwise mislead consumers as to the composition of the product."
As adjusters and repair firms, we obviously need to be cognizant of this lack of disclosure in the furniture industry, and the implications that it may have on our own industry. We should support and advocate the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for Select Leather and Imitation Leather Products whenever possible. Furthermore, we might want to begin treating bonded leather furniture in the same way we treat particle board furniture. Its inherent qualities make it likely to become damaged during handling. Extra care and caution during the moving and storage process may help prevent some damages, but it will never be a complete cure. Perhaps it is time for our industry to take a hard look at this risk and take the necessary actions to minimize your claims exposure.
This article by Shannon Kuhns was written for an audience of claims adjusters and was originally published in a moving claims trade journal. Shannon is a personal property Claims Inspector at West Interior Services. She has a background in appraisal studies and has worked in the antiques auction industry.