Holy Cow! Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine vs Bonded vs Faux Leather

September 30, 2016

Holy Cow! Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine vs Bonded vs Faux Leather

I have never delved into the world of real vs fake leather before now. I never knew there were so many different options for what we consider leather and the choices get worse as I continue to learn. I’m amazed at what fashion designers, furniture companies, and even car companies call “leather”. It’s a loose term at best and it is one that needs some research to determine what kind of leather you want to wear, sit on, or accessorize with. It is not just the fact of real vs. fake leather. It is also about the ecological impact these “leathers” have during production. Let’s delve further into this cow-forsaken subject.


What is Leather? 

I really cannot explain it any better than this guy. I’ll just leave it to him to explain what leather is.


He does a great job at explaining the different layers of leather and how they come to be. When you or your brand demands quality you should choose top grain leather. If you want budget friendly leather, then choose the bonded or genuine leather. I’ve created a table that gives you a general breakdown of the different leather options below.

Full Grain

Top Grain




This is the real, high quality, expensive, timeless leather.

This is the second highest grade of leather. It is split from the top layer, sanded, and refinished.

Produced from the layers of hide that remain after the top is split off for the better grades of leathers. (bottom layers)

Only about 17% real leather. It is made from the dust and shavings of the leather.

Could be vinyl, PVC, polyurethane, or textile-polymer.

Patina - Gets better with age

Doesn’t not age nicely.

Surface is usually refinished (i.e. spray painted) to resemble a higher grade.

Has a polyurethane (plastic) surface.

Also known as “Vegan Leather”. Vegan = petroleum

Each piece is unique like a fingerprint

Strong and durable.

Can be smooth or rough.


Easy to clean due to plastic surface.

Most financially economical.

Shiny with natural variations, smooth/soft feel.



Weak and degrades quickly with use.


12-14% water allows it to acclimate to your body temperature



Also spray painted to look like full grain and top grain leather.



Naked Cows and Dressed Humans

Now, let’s break down why I am appalled at what I see being marketed to consumers. If you are buying a high end wallet or purse and paying $400+ for it, wouldn’t you expect it to be full grain, high-end leather? Guess what! It’s most likely not. Now they market “100% Vegan Leather” for your $400+ and as we just discussed, it’s FAKE! It’s not even a little leather! Where is the value in that? If I am going to spend $400+ on a new purse or wallet (for the record, I would never), I want it to be the expensive, full grain leather that ages like fine wine.  The least we can do is to know the difference between real and fake leather. The fact that companies can get away with calling plastic “vegan leather” is just bull!


Let’s Talk Green

Another thing I found pretty disgusting is the process by which faux leather, or leatherette as some may call it, is made. Now, I’m not saying that the process real leather goes through to make it classy isn’t doing harm to our environment but it is not nearly as bad, in my opinion, as the process used to make fake leather.

PVC requires phthalates in order to make it flexible. Some phthalates have been banned or are under review because they leach out of the final product and can harm us and our ecological system. All PVC based fabrics, like faux leather, use phthalates and the toxicity levels depend on the type of phthalates used. Doesn’t that sound moo-velous?

Polyurethane is a popular alternative for faux leather but it presents it own set of environmental challenges. Its chemistry is complicated and there is a wider variation in quality and performance with polyurethane. From an environmental standpoint, we worry about the solvents used during the production process, which can be highly toxic. During this process, a liquid form of polyurethane is painted onto a fabric backing. Making polyurethane into a liquid requires a solvent. Other factors that affect the environment include the quality of the supply, the way it’s put onto the fabric, and the sorts of chemistry used in every step of the manufacturing process.

Yet, the process for tanning leather is awful as well. The chemicals used in tanning include formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and others. You definitely don’t want to eat that new leather wallet! However, leather is considered more sustainable than plastic. Plastic won’t last as long and when your “vegan leather” bag begins to wear out, it doesn’t wear out as attractively. Worn real leather looks and feels better with age and this gives it the ability to be recycled and reused for a longer period of time.

Real leather is part of a closed-loop system for sustainability. Nature takes care of itself. The carcass of an animal can decay and nurture plants that are eaten by the next generation of animals. Fake leather won’t decay and it generally can’t be made into another faux leather item either, rendering it completely moo-t at the end of its life in your hands

Leather vs. Faux Leather Sustainability Grid


Depending on your budget, your company may opt for genuine leather business gifts instead of top-grain leather gifts. You may also choose leatherette items as company gifts instead of the real thing.

When you’re purchasing real or faux leather items as company or employee gifts consider how long you want the product to last, when it will need to be replaced, how will it be used, how long will it be used, and what will happen to it at the end of its life. And yes, consider your marketing budget, too!


No detail is too small when it comes to swag

Looking to buy a leather or faux leather swag item for your new batch of employees or your next tradeshow? We can help you find the perfect item.




Saddleback Leather