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Importing Leather Goods from China: A Complete Guide
Posted on by Fredrik Gronkvist
Leather is used to make everything from shoes and wallets, to furniture cover and handbags. In this article, we explain what Importers of leather goods must know about different types and qualities of leather, labeling requirements and chemical regulations.
We also explain why you need to be skeptical about the origin of certain leather types, and why you need to steer clear of materials that contain Phthalates and lead.
Leather Types & Qualities
There four main types of leather:
Most suppliers tend to provide domestic cow leather, with calf leather as an upgraded option. Some suppliers can also offer more exclusive forms of leather, for example from crocodiles and other animals.
There are also various textures to choose from, as as the following:
Smooth / plain
When it comes to colors, you have the following options:
Option A: Standard color
Option B: Custom color (Pantone or RAL)
Most suppliers have standard colors, for which the minimum order quantity (MOQ) is relatively lower. You can, of course, get a leather with a specific Pantone color, but this normally results in an increased MOQ.
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Don’t rely on your Manufacturer’s expertise when it comes to leather quality
We work a lot with buyers, and their mostly Shenzhen based manufacturers, in the Watch industry. Most ‘fashion’ Watches today, at least in the mid price segment, come with a leather strap.
Watch manufacturers are essentially component procurement and assembly houses. Little manufacturing of the components are made ‘in house’.
Instead, all components, leather straps included, are made by specialized subcontractors. This is how industrial clusters function, and it’s neither bad nor exclusive to the Watch industry.
So where am I going here?
It would be reasonable to assume that the supplier knows a thing or two about leather qualities. In fact, one could even think they would offer guidance on different leather types and qualities.
However, that is not the case.
In fact, many suppliers – be it in the Watch industry or even those making bags and luggage – are oftentimes not experts in different leather types and qualities.
They expect the Buyer to provide them with clear instructions, which are then forwarded to the raw materials suppliers.
Without a clear specification of the type and quality, they may use a leather that is not matching your quality requirements.
Selecting leather from a sample catalog
Many manufacturers let their customers choose from leather sample catalogs. Normally, each sample has an ID, quality and origin specified.
Notice that it may be hard to verify the actual origin, as I will go into very soon. However, if your only choice is to select from a sample catalog, you should get a sample with you.
This ensures that you have some sort of quality reference for the final production.
Imported leather from Italy (and elsewhere)
Many suppliers tend to quote leather qualities entirely based on the origin. While it is not that simple, it often looks like this:
Italy (High cost)
Hong Kong (Medium cost)
Mainland China (Lower cost)
Can you trust that ‘Italian leather’ is actually from Italy? Not unless they can, at a minimum, show you a Country of origin certificate.
I can tell from experience that many suppliers cannot provide such documentation. Even if they do, it’s still far from being a guarantee for the origin of the leather.
Product Safety Standards
Leather products are not subject to regulations that target leather goods specifically. There are, however, regulations that cover consumer goods as a whole. Below follows an overview:
Restricts substances, such as lead and AZO dyes, in all consumer goods sold in the European Union. This includes leather goods, such as wallets, handbags and watch straps.
b. California Proposition 65
California Proposition 65 restricts more than 800 substances in consumer goods, including leather products. As an Importer, you may either ensure compliance by submitting your leather product to a third party testing company – or attach a warning label.
c. Leather for furniture and home products
Leather covered furniture must normally comply with fire safety regulations, in the target market. Notice that this may require the leather to be treated.
d. Leather products for Children
Leather goods made for kids are subject to CPSIA in the United States, and EN 71 in the European Union. Notice that these regulations are not only applicable to toys, or ‘traditional’ Children’s products – but also wallets and bags.
If you intend to market your products as ‘suitable’ for children, you need to ensure compliance with the children’s product safety regulations in your market.
Case Study: Watch leather straps containing excessive amounts of Phthalates and other restricted substances
What is the real risk of importing leather products? Well, higher than I first thought myself.
In late 2014, a client in (again) the Watch industry submitted batch samples to a product testing laboratory in Hong Kong.
Much to our surprise, the test failed the CA Prop 65 testing. According to the test result, the Watch strap contained excessive amounts of Phthalates:
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. Polyvinyl chloride is made softer and more flexible by the addition of phthalates. Phthalates are used in hundreds of consumer products
Current levels of seven phthalates studied by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences posed “minimal” concern for causing reproductive effects.
However, the National Toxicology Program concluded that high levels of one phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate, may adversely affect human reproduction or development.
However, phthalates are restricted by CA Prop 65, meaning that this product could not legally be imported and sold in the US. Well, at least not without a warning label such as this one:
WARNING: This product will expose you to phthalates, a group of chemical known to the State of California to cause reproductive harm.
That will surely not make your products fly off the shelves any faster.
So, how come a plastic softening chemical was found in a leather strap? For the record, this was not a PU leather product, but as authentic as leather can be.
Most likely, the phthalates came from the coating.
Many leather products are coated with different types of chemicals. In this case, the strap had a glossy surface, which essentially is a sheet of plastic.
This is just speculation on my part, but the most logic conclusion.
Now why didn’t the supplier sort this out earlier? Well, I explained earlier in this article that you cannot assume that your supplier is an expert in leather products, as long as they are not the raw material supplier themselves.
In this specific case, the supplier was primarily focused on the domestic market. Hence, they had no, or at least extremely limited, knowledge of American and European chemical regulations.
This is not exclusive to the Watch industry. In fact, this is widespread in all industries.
Phthalates is not the only substance found in leather. Lead is also found in many leather products.
For example, the correct leather type and description must be present in the product, and in all marketing material. Some products, for examples shoes, may consist of different leather types – all of which must be specified.
In the European Union, leather goods are covered by Regulation (EU) No 1007/2011. Leather products may need to be labelled as following: ‘Contains non-textile parts of animal origin’
More information about labeling requirements for leather goods can be found in this guide.
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Co-founder of Asiaimportal (HK) Limited and based in Hong Kong. He has been quoted in and contributed to Bloomberg, SCMP, Alibaba Insights, Globalsources.com, China Chief Executive, Quartz Magazine and more.
Hey there, I’m Fredrik!
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