Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Ultimate Guide to Real Leather For Shoes

Table of Contents
Recommended Reads
Newsletter

Sign up for our mailing list and stay up to date with the latest articles!

Reading Time: 15 minutes
Table of Contents

When it comes to style staples, a high quality pair of leather shoes is unparalleled, whether you’re rocking everyday sneakers, strutting in designer heels, lacing up rugged leather boots, or stepping out in sleek oxfords.

Investing in the right pair is about more than just fashion; it significantly influences your comfort and overall foot health. Unlike synthetic shoes and other man-made materials, true leather offers a timeless look and durability that can last for years. Moreover, despite common misconceptions, leather is an environmentally friendly choice—something synthetic shoes are not.

Choosing the right leather for shoes is crucial as it determines the comfort, durability, and style of your footwear. From the elite and durable Shell Cordovan leather to the eco-conscious Biodegradable leather, each type of leather offers unique benefits suited for different types of shoes.

The U.S. Department of Interior reports that Americans discard at least 300 million pairs of shoes annually, with these taking 30 to 40 years to decompose in landfills. Real leather, being biodegradable, stands out as a more sustainable alternative to synthetic materials, which can persist in the environment for centuries.

However, identifying true animal hide leather in your favorite kicks isn’t always straightforward. Not all leather is the same. From casual wear to high-end fashion pieces, manufacturers use various materials and techniques that can make it challenging to distinguish real leather from imitations. Understanding the differences in animal hides, leather grades, and tanning processes is crucial. From full-grain to top-grain, each type affects the durability, feel, and authenticity of your footwear.

To make an informed decision, it’s essential to know how to spot quality leather craftsmanship, avoid marketing gimmicks, and recognize sustainable practices. With the right knowledge, you can ensure your investment in high-quality leather products—be it casual sneakers or luxury dress shoes—stands the test of time.

So, how can you tell if your favorite pair is made of true leather or faux leather? What makes the best material for various styles? And why does it matter? Let’s uncover the facts to help you identify and choose real leather shoes that truly last, avoiding the pitfalls of synthetic shoes.

 

From Herd to Heel & Ethical Sourcing Of Real Leather Material

Ethical Sourcing Of Real Leather Material
Although some argue that artificial leather is more sustainable, the reality paints a different picture. Real animal leather, a byproduct of the meat industry, transforms animal hides into long-lasting, versatile products. Cow leather, in particular, is highly valued for its durability and quality, making it a popular choice for various types of footwear.

When you choose real leather shoes, you’re not just investing in durability and style—you’re making an eco-friendly and sustainable decision. Real animal leather, a byproduct of the meat industry, transforms animal hides into long-lasting, versatile products. Without this process, these hides, which represent less than 1% of an animal’s value, would contribute significantly to waste.

Imagine this: annually, 240 million hides globally could generate a staggering 7.6 billion kg of waste if not used for leather production. By opting for real animal leather over synthetic alternatives, you help prevent these hides from ending up in landfills, where they would increase methane emissions and exacerbate global warming. Plus, the production of synthetic materials itself adds more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere.

Additionally, the leather industry can recycle and repurpose leather scraps, reducing overall waste. Bonded leather, made by bonding together leftover scraps of leather, is an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative. Bonded leather shoes offer a sophisticated look without the premium price tag, making them a popular choice for fashion-forward individuals. For instance, recycling chrome in chrome tanning cuts down waste, and scraps can be reclaimed used in products like those from GEN PHOENIX. Even keratin extracted from hide hair is reintroduced to enhance the leather’s elasticity and fullness.

So, next time you’re considering a new pair of shoes, remember that choosing real animal leather is not just about quality—it’s a step towards sustainability.

Back to Dust – Leather’s Natural Decomposition

One major difference between real leather products and synthetic materials is leather’s ability to biodegrade safely back into the soil. Made from tanned animal skins and at least 70% bio-based animal material from collagen, leather can biodegrade under the right conditions, depending on the tanning process.

Even non-biodegradable leathers break down eventually, unlike petroleum-based products that persist indefinitely. Studies show real leather can decompose naturally within 10-50 years, while synthetic leather takes at least 500 years.

Leather has a full circular lifecycle with minimal environmental impact. While synthetic leather often appears to have a lower carbon footprint, this comparison doesn’t accurately capture the existing agricultural practices upstream of leather manufacturing.

A study conducted by the Leather & Hide Council of America, led by Dr. Greg Thoma, a professor from Colorado State University, suggests that the Higg Index’s Global Warming Potential of leather has been overestimated by up to 640%. New studies now look beyond the top aspects and evaluate holistic factors like biodiversity and regenerative agriculture.

Carbon Footprint Facts Don’t Lie

Leather products have relatively low emissions per use. They last around 30-50 years and emit approximately 22.5 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2e) throughout their production. In contrast, synthetic leather products emit about 15.8 kg of CO2e but only last 2-5 years.

Because of their shorter lifespan, at least six times more synthetic products would be needed to match the lifespan of real leather, resulting in a total CO2e emission of at least 94.8 kg for synthetic leather compared to 22.5 kg for real leather. This would significantly increase carbon emissions and accelerate global warming.

The Leather & Hide Council of America’s  life cycle assessment (LCA) study has examined each of these variables in depth, considering factors such as water use, eutrophication, greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, ozone depletion, and the impact of chemicals on land and water.

The first phase of this study concluded in March 2024. The full study, subject to peer review, is expected by the end of 2024.

Ethical Sourcing and Certifications

Ideally, top-quality leather will start with premium, full-grain hides from ethically raised livestock. For example, Koio produces fully regenerative leather shoes from the Swiss Alps. Regenerative leather comes from farms practicing regenerative agriculture, where cows graze on open land, and crops are rotated to minimize the use of fertilizers, hormones, and pesticides.

Certifications ensure responsible sourcing and processing of leather products. The Leather Working Group (LWG) certifies the sustainable manufacture of leather products, giving consumers confidence that the materials are produced responsibly.

Other certifications, like Oeko-Tex, support sustainable material and shoe craftsmanship, ensuring the entire product is produced and sourced responsibly. The Sustainable Leather Foundation extends certification to cover all Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) activities across the supply chain, from farm to brand.

Several companies are working towards establishing full supply chains of regenerative leather. BeHuame is a US hide supplier connecting American regenerative farmers to brands committed to using responsibly sourced materials.

The Anatomy of Shoe Craftsmanship

Anatomy of Shoe craftsmanship
Credit https://www.italianshoefactory.com

A well-made shoe is typically made from cow or calf leather, whether a classic leather Oxford or a trendy sneaker, is more than just its outer shell. From the upper, which provides structure and style, to the lining, which keeps your foot comfortable, the sole, which delivers traction, and the heel, which offers lift or stability, each component plays a crucial role.

Leather shoes stand out because they adapt and mold to the natural shape of your feet, providing a perfect fit without the discomfort of plastic shoes. Plus, leather’s natural anti-bacterial properties support long wear and tear, keeping your feet dry and odor-free.

Understanding the materials used in these components helps you spot the real deal and distinguish high-quality craftsmanship from mass-produced shortcuts.

A Generational Craft Passed Down

Leather shoes craftsmanship is one of the oldest trades known to humanity. It began as a necessary skill for creating clothing, housing, and tools and has evolved into a sophisticated craft that supports function, fashion, and lifestyle. While anyone can learn the basics of working with finished materials, becoming a true leather artisan requires dedication, creativity, and a passion for the craft.

A tanner is someone who knows how to transform a raw hide into a durable leather product. To become a tanner, one must be skilled in chemistry, biology, operational strategy, process management, and quality control. This intricate trade requires a deep understanding of the material and meticulous attention to detail.

For instance, Tanner Leatherstein showcases the unique leather-crafting town of Ubrique, Spain, where the community has a rich tradition of leather artisanship.

Watch here

Regional Variations in Leather Quality:

The characteristics and quality of leather can vary significantly based on its origin:

  • Italian Leather: Known for its soft, supple texture and rich colors, it is often used in high-end footwear.
  • American Leather: Typically robust and durable, ideal for work boots and casual shoes.
  • English Leather: Renowned for its thick, sturdy quality, it is often used in traditional dress shoes and brogues.
  • Spanish Leather: Often praised for its flexibility and use in both casual and formal footwear.

 

These regional differences stem from variations in local cattle breeds, climate conditions, and traditional tanning methods, contributing to the unique qualities of leather from different parts of the world.

Italy also boasts a longstanding history of leather shoemaking dating back to the Middle Ages. Italian craftsmen have spent centuries perfecting their techniques, creating a cultural heritage deeply intertwined with leather and shoemaking. Prestigious leather shoemakers are known for their quality, with many historic brands having over a century of experience crafting luxury products.

Some of the most renowned real leather footwear brands include:

  • Carmina Shoemaker
  • Crockett and Jones
  • Christian Louboutin
  • Berluti
  • Salvatore Ferragamo
  • Lucchese

 

This legacy of craftsmanship ensures that each pair of shoes is functional and a work of art, reflecting the skill and passion of generations of leatherworkers.

Types Of Leather

From kicks to boots to high-fashion heels, the anatomy of leather footwear reveals the artistry and precision behind every pair. Shoes can be made of various types of leather types, each contributing to quality and comfort.

It’s all about the fine details; even smaller components like laces, tongues, and heels can be crafted from varying parts of the animal hide, showcasing meticulous craftsmanship. By understanding these uses, you can better identify and appreciate the quality and artistry that go into making a great pair of shoes.

Notably, “genuine leather” is often misunderstood. It’s actually a low-grade leather product made from inferior hide layers, ranking above bonded leather but below top-grain and full-grain. This term is sometimes used to make cheaper goods seem more premium, highlighting the importance of understanding leather grades when assessing shoe quality.

 

Full-Grain Leather

Full Grain Leather Closeup

Full-grain material, made from the top layer of the hide, retains the hide’s natural surface, including imperfections. full grain leather shoes are known for their strength, stain resistance and durability, it develops a rich patina over time and is commonly used in high-end dress shoes, boots, and luxury footwear.

 

 

 

 

Top-Grain Leather

Top Grain Leather Material

Top-grain material, also from the top layer of the hide, is lightly sanded and refinished to remove imperfections. It is a smooth leather, strong and durable, often used in dress shoes and quality everyday footwear, though it doesn’t develop as rich a patina as full-grain leather.

 

 

 

 

Suede

suede leather sample

 

 

 

 

 

Suede, made from the underside of the hide, has a soft, napped finish. It offers a distinct texture and aesthetic, making it popular in casual shoes, loafers, and fashion sneakers, though it is less durable than full-grain or top-grain material.

 

 

 

 

Nubuck

Nubuck Leather

Nubuck, similar to suede but made from the outer side of the hide, is sanded or buffed to create a soft, velvety finish. Suede shoes combines strength with a plush texture, suitable for both casual and dress shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

Sheepskin and Goatskin

Sheepskin and GoatskinSheepskin and goatskin are softer and more pliable than cowhide, making them ideal for linings and comfortable shoe uppers. They provide excellent insulation and comfort and are often used in luxury slippers and boots.

 

 

 

 

 

Exotic leathers

Exotic LeatherExotic leathers, sourced from animals like alligators, ostriches, buffalo leather and snakes, offer unique textures and patterns. These materials are prized in high-end footwear for their distinctive appearance and rarity. Exotic leather shoes are known for their luxury appeal and often command premium prices. While requiring special care, they offer unparalleled uniqueness and are frequently used in designer shoes, limited-edition collections, and bespoke footwear.

 

 

 

 

Corrected grain leather

Corrected Grain LeatherCorrected grain leather is made from top-quality hides that are sanded and buffed to remove blemishes, then treated with artificial grain for uniformity. While this process creates a smooth appearance and more affordable shoes, it sacrifices the strength and longevity associated with full-grain leather.

 

 

 

 

 

Split leather

Split LeatherSplit leather, which involves splitting the top grain from the suede surface, is one of the distinct parts of the hide, with fibers becoming softer and looser deeper into the hide. By understanding these uses, you can better identify and appreciate the quality and artistry that go into making a great pair of shoes.

 

 

 

 

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather

Bonded leather, also known as reconstituted leather, is a material made from leather scraps and fibers mixed with polyurethane or latex. It’s then backed with a fabric or paper substrate and embossed with a leather-like texture. This product is significantly cheaper, but lacks its durability and quality. In the shoe industry, it’s typically used for very low-end products or non-essential components.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Synthetic and Fake Leathers

 

“Vegan” Leather

Vegan Leather

Vegan material, marketed as an ethical alternative, is often made from plant-based materials mixed with petroleum-based binders or resins. It lacks the durability and aging characteristics of natural hides and is primarily used in fast-fashion footwear.

 

 

 

 

PU Leather

PU Leather Fabric

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PU (polyurethane) material mimics the appearance of real leather but is less durable and breathable. It is a petroleum-based chemical coating that is cured on top of a polyester backing. It’s commonly found in low-cost shoes and fashion items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Synthetic Leather

Synthetic Leather

Synthetic leather, commonly made to look like patent leather, is made from plastics and other synthetic components. While it may look convincing, synthetic leather lacks real leather’s quality, comfort, and longevity and has a plastic coating. Over time, it often cracks and peels, failing to provide the same durability and aesthetic appeal as natural leather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoe Leather Tanning Fundamentals

Leather tanning is an art and science that transforms raw hides into a durable material with unique properties. Each method imparts distinct characteristics, influencing the leather’s strength, flexibility, and style.

The shoe industry leverages these varied tanning techniques to create the perfect leather for every shoe type. Athletic shoes demand flexibility, while dress shoes require a polished finish. High-end heels need leather that can be both sculpted and supportive.

Combination tanning methods offer a sweet spot, producing versatile leather that meets multiple needs. This approach allows shoemakers to craft shoes that are both functional and fashionable, suitable for various occasions.

Understanding these processes gives us insight into why our favorite shoes look, feel, and perform the way they do.

Chrome Tanning

Chrome-tanned materials are the most common type used in global footwear due to their incredible durability for all uses and weather conditions. Chrome tanned leather is known for its softness, vibrant color, and excellent resistance to water and wear, making it a preferred choice for many shoe manufacturers. Don’t worry about the term “chrome”; the process uses chromium III, a trace mineral naturally found in our environment and even used in daily supplements.

Vegetable Tanning

Vegetable-tanned materials are the second most common and are used for making durable components for soles and heels. Think of those great cowboy boots you hear walking across the wooden floor—that’s the beauty of real vegetable-tanned materials. This method can also produce soft, supple, yet durable shoe uppers. EcoTan from SilvaTan is a great example of supple vegetable-tanned leather used in modern shoes.

The most traditional, high-end vegetable-tanned shoes come from Cordovan hides (horse hide). These hides have a long history of ethical sourcing, with Horween being America’s leader in Cordovan materials.

 

Mineral Tanning

Mineral tanning is the latest innovation, offering an even more sustainable tanning option. Alterations in chemical and water usage make this tannage type a metal-free and gluteraldehyde-free option for global brands. Puma has utilized this method in one of its latest shoes, using biodegradable ReSuede made from Zeology materials.

 

Finishes

Beyond the types of leather, there are various finishes used in shoe craftsmanship:

  • Aniline: Aniline leather is premium napa leather dyed to preserve its natural grain. While less stain-resistant, it’s prized for its authentic look. Aniline leather shoes are valued in high-end fashion for their professional appearance and smooth leather feel, making them a favorite for formal wear.
  • Semi-aniline: Similar to aniline but with a thin protective topcoat, offering a balance of natural appearance and durability.
  • Pigmented: Leather with a polymer surface coating containing pigments, providing excellent durability and uniformity in color.
  • Patent: Leather with a polymer surface coating with a high-gloss shine, providing unique style and aesthetic without compromising durability.

These finishes can significantly impact the shoe’s appearance, texture, and how it ages over time.

 

Stringent Quality Control

Shoe quality control

Strict quality control and tight grading specifications filter out imperfections to ensure you get the highest-quality leather products. Hides are carefully inspected manually or digitally to identify markings, ensuring only the best parts are used. The remaining parts are recycled or repurposed, with companies like GEN PHOENIX specializing in reclaimed materials.

Innovative tech companies like Hidexe are revolutionizing quality control in tanneries by developing digital software and machinery that automate the process. This technology helps maintain a high level of quality before the material even reaches the final product.

Quality starts with shoe companies that invest in their materials. Take ECCO Shoes, for example. They own their tanneries and develop incredible leather innovations. ECCO’s CEO, Panos Mytaros, who has a degree from a renowned leather school in Germany, comes from a long line of tanners. ECCO has pioneered translucent leather and reduces waste by using less popular cuts of the hide, integrating natural wrinkles and scars into their designs.

On the other hand, synthetic materials often lack consistent quality. Fake leather might look perfect when you buy it, but it doesn’t hold up to wear and tear, peeling, cracking, and flaking over time. Unlike real leather, it doesn’t age gracefully or conform to your foot. To top that off, it never degrades, remaining in the environment forever.

Stringent quality control ensures that every natural leather product meets high standards of excellence. This attention to detail and commitment to quality set natural leather apart from synthetic alternatives, giving you products that look good and stand the test of time.

 

12 Ways to Identify Authentic Leather Footwear

Ways to Identify Authentic Leather Footwear

Real leather shoes offer a unique combination of comfort, style, and durability. But with so many synthetic imitations on the market, how can you tell the real deal from a fake? Here are 10 key ways to identify real leather footwear:

  1. The Smell Test: Real leather has a distinct, natural scent, often compared to earthy tones or tanned hides. Synthetics often smell like chemicals or plastic. Take a whiff of the shoe – a natural leather aroma is a good sign.

  2. The Touch Test: Real leather feels smooth and supple, with a natural texture that can vary depending on the type of leather. It should feel soft and slightly grainy, not stiff or plasticky. Run your fingers across the shoe and feel for a natural give.

  3. The Wrinkle Test: When you press your thumb into real leather, you will see fine lines or natural wrinkles like your skin. If no fine lines are produced, then it is surely synthetic.
  4. The Backside Test: If the product does not have a lining, inspect the material’s backside. Real leather will have fibers and look like suede on the back, whereas synthetic material will have a fabric backing.
  5. The Pinch Test: Gently pinch the material. Real leather will have a natural give and bounce back when you release your fingers. Synthetics will likely crease and hold the fold. This elasticity is a key indicator of natural leather.

  6. The Patina Test: Over time, real leather develops a beautiful patina, a waxy luster that reflects its age and use. Synthetics typically won’t develop this characteristic change in appearance. Look for a subtle sheen that deepens with wear – a sign of natural leather.

  7. The Look Closer Test: Examine the shoe’s edges. If there’s a raw edge or stretch marks, real leather might show exposed fibers. Synthetics often have a fabric backing. Look closely for any inconsistencies in the material around the edges.

  8. The Grain Test: Inspect the grain pattern of the leather. Real leather often has a unique, irregular pattern with tiny pores visible, while synthetics often have a more uniform, repetitive pattern. Look for variations and imperfections in the grain—a sign of natural leather.

  9. The Crease Test: Observe how the shoe creases with wear. Real leather develops soft, natural creases that conform to the foot’s shape. Synthetic materials often form sharp, unnatural creases that can look more like harsh folds or wrinkles.
  10. The Water Drop Test: Place a small drop of water on the surface (in an inconspicuous area). Real leather will absorb the water slowly, while most synthetic materials will not absorb it at all, leaving the drop sitting on the surface.

Advanced Tests (Use with Caution):

These tests are not recommended for everyday use but can be helpful for further verification in inconspicuous areas:

11. The Scratch Test (Try in a hidden spot): Gently scratch the surface. Real leather may show some fine particles, while synthetics will likely remain intact.

Remember: Only attempt this test on a tiny, hidden area of the shoe.

12. The Fire Test (Try in a hidden spot, with extreme caution): A small flame test can be risky. Real leather will not melt or readily burn but may char and smell like burnt hair. Synthetics will typically melt or shrink and give off a strong chemical odor.

Warning: Only attempt this test on a tiny, inconspicuous area with proper fire safety measures. Avoid this test altogether unless absolutely necessary.

Key Takeaway

Now that you know what to look for, don’t be fooled by marketing hype or vague claims. Remember, only transparently labeled materials can be real leather. Those premium grades like full-grain and top-grain? They speak for themselves – no greenwashing needed.

When you choose high-quality shoe leather, or honestly labeled leather footwear, you’re getting more than just shoes. You’re investing in durability, comfort, and ethical production. You’re supporting an industry that values transparency and skill. And you’re saying no to synthetics that often hide their true environmental impact. So go ahead, use your new knowledge to pick shoes that truly reflect quality and craftsmanship. Your feet (and the planet) will thank you.

SHARE:
Keep Exploring

You may also be interested

Learn how to effectively remove grease and oil stains out of leather furniture with this comprehensive guide. Fact is leather can stain because it's an organic material. With the right approach, you can revive your leather's natural beauty. Say goodbye to oil stains for good!
Confused about the differences between real and faux leather? You’re not the only one. In today’s world of questionable marketing claims and greenwashing, making informed choices as a consumer is tough. Remember when food was just food, leather just leather, and products were built to last? Now even buying a simple leather jacket takes smartphone research on what’s really organic, eco-friendly, or in this case – made from real or faux leather. Understanding the main differences between leather types and being able to tell the difference between them has never been more important.
The Doctor's sustainable cure? Reclaimed Genix leather! Iconic brands are reinventing timeless footwear from this innovative material made of leather scraps. Step into Genix's circular journey - watch waste transform into fashion-forward shoes, leaving a lighter step on the planet.
LET'S PLAY A GAME

Poll Time!