I get too many phone calls revolving around the same question: “What does your leather smell like?” Usually with the follow up question, “well… does it smell like poop?” At first, I thought this was just a random array of leather lovers that found themselves with a product made from bad batches of leather. As I began to fulfill my curiosity with research, I found something very interesting:
Manure and Urine in Leather Tanning Solutions
Believe it or not, there are a couple of tanneries in the world that are still using “organic waste” in tanning solutions, specifically in Morocco and Mexico. This is not ALL tanneries from these locations, but there are definitely still a few. Why? In the early days of making leather, it was common for the tanners to urinate in the solution for the additional enzymes that break the leather down. Cow manure was used for the same reason. Still to this day, there are a few of the original Moroccan tanneries that use manure, because it is cheap, “traditional”, and readily available. This also applies to certain tanneries in Mexico who will have workers urinate in their tanning pits. The downside to this is that once the leather gets wet, it begins to smell like the ingredients it was made from. Hence, the hilarious phone calls from people wanting to make sure they don’t buy a journal that smells like poop.
Given modern day advances, and the ability to have a more hygienic alternative to the traditional methods of veg-tanning, none of our leather is made with animal or human waste. Our leather is tanned with a solution consisting of tree bark and other plant matter (hence the name vegetable-tanned), and we pay a premium to ensure leather of this quality.
If your leather products are cheap, it’s possible they will stink:
This is the best way to gauge the risk of potentially offensive-smelling leather goods: It’s “veg-tanned” leather that is inexpensive compared to the other items available, and not made in the USA. This is not a guaranteed rule of thumb, but it is the highest correlation among those who call with this sad story. If you are buying something made out of leather, you are buying something that should outlive you, and when you pass it on, you don’t want a family heirloom that smells like poop.