What’s called “Bicast Leather” is a common furniture covering. While this composite leather looks like the real thing, it may not wear like it.
We’re concerned that retailers aren’t giving consumers enough information about this leather and its long-term durability.
What is the problem?
There’s some great leather furniture sold here. Karen Goa thought she’d found some – a gorgeous leather chair from furniture store for $719.
She knew it was made of bicast leather when she bought the chair but didn’t know what that meant.
Once she got the chair home, she searched the web for information about bi-cast leather. That’s when she began to worry.
More: How to buy a mattress
Karen had left the store thinking she had bought a genuine leather product.
But because we don’t have mandatory labeling of leather products, Karen wasn’t aware she had bought a chair covered in a composite material of a synthetic bonding product (usually urethane) applied to an inferior section of animal hide.
The polyurethane coating was treated to look like genuine leather.
As far as we know, bicast leather is not used on locally made furniture but is found on imported furniture from Asia and elsewhere.
More: The Best Bar Carts
It’s usually much cheaper than genuine leather, but even top-end Italian furniture can sometimes be covered with it.
Is it a problem?
We spoke to a number of leather upholstery repairers and, their unanimous verdict was that bicast was “awful stuff”.
One repairer was of the opinion the mid-section layers of hide used in bicast leather “had the strength of tissue paper”.
Unlike genuine leather, the synthetic surface of bicast leather is not porous and gets damaged by perspiration.
Unlike genuine leather, the synthetic surface of bi-cast leather is not porous and gets damaged by perspiration.
This can result in some bicast leather delaminating – the synthetic and hide layers separate, the surface cracks, and the furniture “falls apart”.
The bicast material itself can’t be repaired, so any patching must be done with genuine leather – making it difficult to match surfaces.
Often reupholstering is the only option, which can be more expensive than the original purchase.
Dr. Warren Bryson, Director of the Leather and Shoe Research Association, told us the properties of bicast leather varied from manufacturer to manufacturer and also process to process.
He believed some of the better examples would perform very well, but the only way to know for sure about a particular product was to test under laboratory conditions.
Bryson suggested mandatory testing of imported products to ensure they passed a minimum standard of durability would significantly benefit consumers.
Lack of information
When we went to furniture stores pretending to buy leather furniture, salespeople were usually able to tell us which sofas were made of bicast leather but not much about durability.
We couldn’t find any material from retailers telling us that the “leather” covering on furniture had been stress-tested in a lab. Stores that stocked bicast leather tended to be upbeat about the product.
Where written information was available, it didn’t help. For example, one furniture store calls its various leather types names such as “Deco” or “Lawson” rather than a name that describes the type of leather.
More: The Best Robot Vacuums
There were no pamphlets or other material in-store that gave the proportion of the leather that was made from a hide (versus polyurethane) or indicated the expected life of the material.
On the back of the Deco bicast leather sample, we found a statement which we believe implied the material was more natural than it really was:
“This leather is indicative of the color only. Due to the natural characteristics of leather, slight variations in color and grain may occur.”
It’s easy to see how consumers, after reading this statement, would mistakenly believe they had bought a genuine leather product.
Bicast leather is said to be perfect in “high-wear areas”. This may be so, but without any durability test results, how can a consumer know?
Mandatory labeling needed
Bicast leather looks and feels like high-grade leather. Even experts find it hard to tell the difference from simply looking at and pinching the material.
Consumers are paying for what they believe will be a long-lasting product, and they need the right information from retailers to make a good choice.
So it’s essential that leather products have labeling that clearly identifies:
- the proportion of bonding agents (if any) and leather being used
- the part of the hide the leather is from.
Mandatory labeling would help clear up a legally grey area.
In 2001 the Commerce Commission said that representing leather look-alike products (such as bicast leather) “as ‘100% leather’, ‘genuine leather’, or as simply ‘leather’ may mislead consumers about the real nature of the product they are purchasing”.
Retailers may risk breaching the [Fair Trading Act] if they claim that bicast leather is genuine leather. We think stores should reconsider the labeling of their Deco samples if they wish to avoid the possibility of a challenge from the Commerce Commission.
Getting the real thing
Tips for buying leather furniture:
Price is not always a good guide to quality but be wary if the new “leather” sofa you are looking at is much cheaper than sofas sold as “full-grain” or “top-grain” leather.
Bicast leather products usually have short warranty periods of up to 2 years compared with 5 to 10 years for genuine leather.
Don’t be fooled by grand-sounding Italian brand names or claims that the furniture was “designed in USA”. Always ask for details.
Ask your retailer where the sofa was made, which country the leather is from, what part of the hide was used, and what life expectancy it has. Get this information in writing.
We would like to see mandatory labeling of leather products and furniture.
Bicast leather products often have short warranty periods of up to 2 years. But don’t accept that you have to pay for repairs to your bi-cast leather furniture just because it’s out of warranty. Use your Consumer Guarantees Act rights and, if the retailer won’t fix it, take a case to the Disputes Tribunal.
If you have concerns about your leather furniture, take it to a leather specialist and ask them to check for early signs of damage.