Animal-free products are in a popularity boom. Today vegan leather shoes, boots, handbags, and billfolds are getting eagerly snapped up—and car seats are increasingly in on the action. Tesla recently became the latest luxury automaker to offer vegan leather seating, joining the likes of Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lexus, and Mercedes.
Vegan leather is mostly made from polyurethane, a polymer that can be tailored to any designer’s wish. It can also be made from innovative and sustainable resources such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, other fruit waste, and recycled plastic. From these humble feedstocks come materials that put animal skins to shame.
For over a decade now, the automotive industry has been working to introduce natural and renewable materials, largely in response to rising consumer squeamishness about environmental costs of plastics and philosophical objections to animal skins.
And so, new materials are being announced on a practically nonstop basis. McLaren is giving its interiors a new touch that’s synonymous with high-end clothing: in a probable production-vehicle first, they’re putting in cashmere upholstery on portions of seats in the Atelier trim level. The natural fabric is a blend of wool from Australia and cashmere from Mongolia. According to McLaren, their cashmere is not only invitingly soft to the touch, but also insulating and temperature-regulating to add to overall comfort.
Seoyon, a Korean supplier of interior components, has developed parts that have a cork finish. As an alternative to wood or wood-finish parts, the cork-finished components are being positioned as an eco-friendly, sustainable option with a high-end appearance that is also soft to the touch. “This cork comes from the bark of cork wood,” said Seoyon America senior manager YG Kang. “We do not need to cut the cork wood. We are not killing the trees. We just strip out the bark and it grows back. It’s sustainable.”
The cork bark is cut into thin slices, ranging from 0.7 to 0.9 mm, for application as a veneer. The surface material is placed onto injection-molded plastic, which gives it the structure required to be part of a door trim, instrument panel, or console. The process applies a water-based topcoat to protect the permeable cork from abrasion, sunlight, or stains.
So is this new interest in vegan materials just a temporary whim? Maybe, but there are indications it’s really gaining traction. Veganism is on a rapid rise and car manufacturers are increasingly riding the wave. And aside from seats and touchable-surface upholstery, there are other opportunities all around most vehicles: entertainment system screens contain liquid crystals that may be based on cholesterol taken from animals. The rubber and plastic used to make tires may be vulcanized and toughened using tallow (mutton fat), and even the steel used for a car’s frame may have been lubricated with animal fat.
There are also new resources for car buyers. Buyacar.co.uk is a British website with content on the subject; an example of the site’s advice to buyers: “When buying a new car, it’s easy to specify a non-leather interior but it’s not always as easy when buying used—not everything is clearly labelled for identification. Watch for specific names of artificial leathers used by car makers, such as Artico with Mercedes and Sensatec with BMW. And Alcantara is a type of man-made suede and is vegan-friendly”. The site cites the best vegan-friendly cars as the Polestar 2, Renault Twizy, VW Golf, Toyota Prius, Range Rover Velar, Ford Fiesta, Mercedes A-Class, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, and Tesla Model S—all because they are leather free, sometimes with a leather alternative.
That list is consistent with other sources, such as Livingkindly’s “Complete Vegan Guide to Buying a Car”. That list also adds the Bentley EXP 100 GT and its vegan leather made from grape skins.
Bentley EXP 100 GT
So, is automotive veganism a fad? Time will tell, but it’s clearly an increasingly strong car interior marketing lever at the high end—and it looks more and more likely to proliferate to more parts of more vehicles in more and more segments.