My search for truly safe leather furniture started out a little more optimistically then it ended. However, there are a few great options out there.
The only leather I can fully endorse as eco-friendly is chrome-free vegetable-dyed leather. This is made without the toxic metals and other harmful chemicals used in conventional leather.
The second best option is anything that is at least chrome-free.
First, I explain the many chemicals used in the production of leather, the jargon, and the greenwashing phrases. Then I have a short checklist of what I do look for.
Only a few brands in North America meet these healthy standards. If you are set on leather, consider these brands against the chemical risks in the mainstream options.
One reason there are not more brands that use this natural non-toxic method is that the leather is not as uniform as we are used to expecting. It’s also not cheap.
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Convention Leather Production
- Chromium/”chrome” is used in the tanning of leather. Chromium tanned leather is the most common and the most toxic. “Mineral tanning” can include chrome tanning.
- Mineral tanning (the opposite of vegetable tanning, and the default tanning if a brand doesn’t specify vegetable tanning) can also include aluminum sulfate (“alum”) and sodium or potassium sulfate, zirconium (complex aluminum compounds), and titanium. Alum and white tanning, as well as zirconium, are used rarely, only for specific types of leather.
- Formaldehyde can be used in the tanning.
- Heavy/toxic metals used in the dying can include cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, mercury, and nickel.
- Some “azo dyes” produce amines classified as carcinogenic.
Three Types of Dyes
- “Aniline dyed” means the leather is dyed through and through without a topcoat. This can refer to vegetable tanned leather and chrome tanned. So while this doesn’t help to distinguish between those two types, this is usually preferable to a leather with a top coat dye. This should not have a protective layer or coating on the surface if it’s true aniline.
- Semi-aniline, also referred to as “Aniline Plus”, is dyed with a penetrating aniline dye and also contains a topcoat of polymer and dyes.
- Pigmented leather is the opposite end of aniline. It has a full coating on top. The natural grain is removed by buffing the leather grain surface. Then it is coated with multiple layers of pigment and a finish. It is embossed with a leather grain pattern in the final stages.
Coatings on Leather
- Leather, if not aniline, is often coated with polyurethane.
- Coatings can include cancer-causing hydrocarbons and organotin (a form of tin).
- Phthalates can be used in the coating.
Other Additives in Leather
- Preservatives/mildewcides can include pentachlorophenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dimethyl fumarate. Though they are banned in many countries.
- Biocides like chlorinated phenols can also be used.
What to Look for in Eco-Friendly Leather:
- Vegetable-tanned with tannins found in vegetables, tree bark, and other natural plant-derived sources (instead of chromium). (If a brand doesn’t specify vegetable dyed then it’s mineral dyed).
- No chromium tanning! (The most important part).
- Dyes are free of heavy metals.
- No azo dyes that produce amines classified as carcinogenic.
- Glutaraldehyde, also named Pentane-1,5-dial, is used as a tanning agent, it’s considered safer than the alternatives.
- Free of biocides including dimethyl fumarate.
- Certified by Oeko-Tex, the European Naturtextil IVN, or Cradle to cradle GOLD
Greenwashing Leather Claims!
“Water-based pigments” – says nothing about the safety of the dyes, treatments, or coatings.
“Aniline leather with a coating” – this is not a true aniline (aniline has no coating, semi-aniline has a coating). It also doesn’t say anything about the safety of the dyes or topcoat.
Brands of Non-Toxic Leather Furniture
Medley makes leather upholstered sofas, sectionals, chairs, and ottomans. They also have leather headboards for the bedroom.
They offer different leather options. As of 2023 they should still be offering the leather that is vegetable tanned with olive leaves. It is a mineral-free, totally natural tanning process that uses less energy and is much safer than chromium tanning. A+ from me.
They offer both aniline and semi-aniline.
EcoBalanza also goes all the way to make sofas that are as pure as they get from the foam to the textiles and everything in between. I go into more detail on what’s inside their sofas in my furniture post.
They make their leather sofas with EcoPell leather which is unsealed, vegetable-tanned, free of chromium, heavy metals, biocides, and every other unnecessary chemical.
You can see the whole process on the EcoPell site.
It is tested for frequently occurring contaminants including heavy metals, carcinogenic aromatic amines, and formaldehyde.
Based in Seattle, EcoBalanza ships throughout the US and beyond.
See my furniture post for more details.
Herman Miller, including Eames
Herman Miller leather is chrome-free which is the most important attribute I would look for in a better leather. Though they don’t mention that it’s vegetable dyed, so we should assumed it’s mineral dyed.
It does not have topical coatings.
They don’t say anything else about what is used in the processing and tanning of the leather.
All leather in IKEA products is chrome-free (chrome VI) since 2017. This puts it in the next best category.
Pottery Barn’s leather sofas come up high in the search results when searching for non-toxic leather sofas. However, their leather is semi-aniline (which means it has a topcoat), there is no reference to it being chrome-free, and the leather sofas I looked at are not marked GreenGuard Gold.
Steelcase, Haworth and Kimball
These three companies are suppliers for commercial projects.
Steelcase uses chrome-free leather on select pieces. You will see them labeled as chrome-free and PVC-free on the website.
The leather comes from the company Cortina Leathers. This appears to be their Showcase Eco line which is described as biodegradable and low-VOC.
They do mention in some sections of the website that they also use a vegetable-tanned leather.
Haworth is another company supplying office and other commercial furniture to businesses.
They also use Cortina Leathers chrome-free leather. The items they can upholster in leather are listed here.
Kimball, last on the list, is similar to the other commercial suppliers. They create modern office furniture for businesses with a chrome-free leather option.
Not a furniture company, but Volvo uses chrome-free leather for its leather seats. (Chrome-free is the most important thing to look for in leather).
PS. Non-toxic leather conditioning oils that won’t do long-term damage are here.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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