Non-animal-based leather alternatives aren’t a new concept: for example, Mercedes has offered a synthetic material called Artico since 2003, Toyota uses a material called Softex and Ferrari offers Mycro Prestige as a vegan leather option on some models.
Yvonne Taylor, the director of corporate projects for animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Autocar that, compared to industries such as fast food, fashion, aviation and hospitality, the car industry “has been slower to capitalise on the demand for vegan products”, adding: “this is ironic, given that many of the biggest companies has been using vegan leather for its high quality and durability for years.”
Taylor wants car firms to offer entirely vegan interior options for every model, saying that leather isn’t a byproduct of the meat industry, as many people think, but a “global, $100 billion-a-year industry that slaughters more than one billion cows, sheep, goats and pigs [annually].”
According to Taylor, a PETA investigation into cattle ranchers in Brazil who supply leather producers that sell producs to car firms, found evidence of factory farming, extreme crowding and animal cruelty.
For the car firms, it’s been a question of market demand: Mercedes says that leather remains the most popular choice for upholstery in its cars, although it is developing new vegan leather alternatives. And other premium firms are reacting to the change in consumer demand, too.
Land Rover has been one of the leaders in this area, working with partners on a range of non-leather fabrics: the Evoque and Velar are offered with a premium wool-polyester blend from Kvadrat, a synthetic suede by Miko and a eucalyptus fibre textile. In a recent interview, Land Rover’s chief colours and materials designer Amy Fascella said: “Premium car customers still love luxury, but they’re also dialling back the consumerism and doing some good if they can.”
Tesla has phased out the use of leather entirely from its upholstery options, in part because of pressure brought by PETA after it bought shares in the California-based EV maker. And Volvo’s new sister brand Polestar will offer only leather-free interiors, using a water-based PVC material called Weavetech that was developed in-house. Polestar boss Thomas Ingenlath says it demonstrates that “our care for the environment goes beyond the electric drivetrain”, with the aim to “promote and accelerate the shift of the car industry towards leather-free interiors.”
The drive by the car industry towards reducing carbon emissions is also prompting a move away from leather – and that’s partly why the forthcoming Volkswagen ID 3 and Ford Mustang Mach-E EVs will use only animal-free materials.
Taylor says the production of animal-derived materials such as leather is “as toxic to the Earth as it is cruel to animals.” Indeed, the UN estimates animal agriculture – including the leather and wool industries – creates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Taylor refers to cattle and sheep as “the Humvees of the animal kingdom”, due to the volume of methane they produce, and adds that turning animal skin into leather involves using environmentally harmful toxic materials.
The leather industry believes its product has a strong and necessary future, however.
The director of Leather UK, Dr Kerry Senior, said: “The reality is that more than 90% of the world’s population eat meat, and that consumption is rising. While this is the case, more than seven million tonnes of hides and skins will be produced every year, which will need to be dealt with. The most efficient and elegant solution to that problem is the production of leather. Leather is unarguably a byproduct of the meat industry.”