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The Inconvenient Truth About Vegan Leather in Cars

The Inconvenient Truth About Vegan Leather in Cars

The alternative upholstery isn’t (always) what you think it is.

Veganism. Depending who you ask, a lifestyle free of animal products will eliminate the cow farts melting our ice caps and prolong your life expectancy, or it’s a harbinger of an end time swarming with virtue-signaling, protein-deficient soyboys incapable of coital reproduction.

That world and our world havn’t overlapped until recently. Especially in the case of electric vehicles, automakers as of late have touted their leather-free interiors, in some cases sprinkling the “vegan” buzzword throughout their marketing materials. The wave of so-called premium-leather alternatives began during Tesla’s 2015 shareholder meeting—when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) requested the company become the first cruelty free automaker. All Teslas have been offered with synthetic leather seating since 2017.

In the years since, vegan leather has become a must for premium electric cars. Each of Rivian’s five interior option descriptions for the R1S and R1T include “perforated vegan leather seats.” Polestar writes about its MicroTech as a vegan-friendly leather alternative for the Polestar 3. Porsche introduced its first leather-free interior in the Taycan with Race-Tex. In some cases, like with the Porsche, a vegan alternative carries an upcharge over standard leather. (Because, well, of course it does.)

We attended Continental’s TechFest recently, and a quip by one of the tire company’s reps caught our attention. Continental also makes upholsteries in addition to tires and sensors and adorable robots, and when describing the bio-based hide-free leatherlikes in a tiny home it had on display, the rep described the material as artificial leather but mentioned it calls it “vegan” because it sounds better.

Name Game
“Synthetic leather” comes off as clinical, “faux leather” implies a cheap simulacrum of something better, and “leatherette” is the material lining your grandparents’ padded toilet seat. “Vegan leather” (especially to some EV buyers) sounds like you’re saving the world.

Here’s the secret: Vegan leather is nothing new, or even close to new, and not all leather alternatives are clever plant-based creations here to save us from a warmed global demise. Fabrikoid, patented by DuPont in 1915, is a synthetic leather made from cotton fabric coated with a form of nitrocellulose. DuPont didn’t invent the stuff, but it was among the first to use it in the automotive space. Before Fabrikoid was even patented, DuPont struck a deal with Ford to install the leatherless upholstery in 65 percent of the Model T’s annual production run. Our butts have been sliding around on cruelty free leather almost as long as we’ve been driving cars.

You likely know most synthetic leathers—Naugahyde, MB-Tex, SofTex, Sensatec, etc.—are made from a base fabric coated in polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that’s then painted and embossed with a leatherlike grain. In short, the majority of the stuff is petroleum-derived plastic, not some miracle material made from quinoa and bean sprouts. That composition means it can be tough to recycle and isn’t biodegradable like the bovine leather it’s trying to emulate.

There’s Still Hope
Don’t take this to mean one material is universally better; not all leather alternatives are disposable, unsustainable cheap-outs. Some are brilliant.

Polestar certifies its MicroTech is made from renewable vinyl over a recycled polyester backing. Mercedes-Benz is working on a vegan leather made from fungal root systems, plus it featured Deserttex cactus leather in the EQXX concept car. Robert Downey Jr. even used mushroom leather in his electric 1965 Corvette, and Continental produced a 65 percent sustainable leather alternative from coffee grounds.

There are also responsibly produced natural leathers, like those made by Bridge of Weir. The Scotland-based tannery also supplied upholstery for the Model T; these days, it sources hides that are a byproduct of the beef industry in the surrounding area. Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath once insisted the company’s vehicles would only ever use vegan leather, yet you can order a Polestar 2 right now with seats lined from the real stuff from the Scots.

006 Mercedes Benz vegan leather mercedes vision eqxx

Bio-based leather alternatives haven’t yet become scaleable or durable enough to make production, and not all animal-leather suppliers produce their product as mindfully as do the folks at Bridge of Weir. Just like how water-intensive almond-milk production isn’t necessarily more sustainable than cow milk from a local dairy farm, there’s no one perfect answer.

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