We Love Luxury Leather Interiors. Is Vegan Leather As Good?

A leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon are the luxury leather interiors we love so much. But vegan leather is growing in popularity, used by more and more car makers and it is more sustainable in many ways.

The Interior Is So Light And Bright, Even With Black Leather
The interior is so light and bright, even with black leather. Photo: Scotty Reiss

The bad news: Leather leads to deforestation. The good news: There are solutions.  

We all have that one favorite designer handbag, those boots, those shoes, and we love the way it cradles us in luxury in our cars. Leather is all around us, and we like it. But is it as good as many of the vegan leather alternatives we see being offered? And is it really the best material choice for our cars?

Leather, which is made from the hide of an animal, is durable and resilient. It’s not easily stained or damaged. It can take on different colors, tones and textures. In our cars creates a refined feeling with its soft, supple feel, and most everyone loves that new leather smell.

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2021 Lexus Is

The colors and textures of a leather interior create a pod of posh refinement. Photo: Lexus

The Production and Demand of Leather is Threatening Rainforests

Leather is certainly a valuable co-product of the cattle industry, the other being beef. Cattle are raised for their meat and their skins, both of which can be profitable. But, cattle need fields for grazing, and in the countries where raising cattle is lucrative, deforestation is increasing. Sadly, research shows that the cattle industry is the number one contributor of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Stand.earth puts it simply: new research has just been released “that reveals for the first time how the fashion industry is pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to the tipping point of irreversible ecosystem collapse.”

According to the World Bank, the Amazon is a region that hosts 40% of the world’s remaining rainforest, 25% of its terrestrial biodiversity, and more fish species than in any other river system. This biodiversity plays a critical role as part of global systems, influencing the global carbon cycle and thus climate change.

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2020 Rolls Royce Cullinan

Many automakers allow customers to personalize the interior with distinct leather colors, as in this Rolls Royce. Photo: Becky Fixel

Decisions, Decisions…..

In the United States, as the price of the average car has soared to nearly $50,000, and as consumers expect leather at that price, our appetite for leather upholstery has become a driver of Amazon deforestation. One luxury car can require a dozen or more hides, making the leather market a lucrative business valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

And, Americans enjoy a variety of choices. We are accustomed to creating the car of our dreams through customizing options, including leather interiors. But there are options to leather, and responsible choices in leather. If you note what manufacturers name their upholstery choices, and the description of their interior offerings, you’ll get the idea: alternatives to leather are growing in popularity.

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Porsche Taycan

Even Porsche went vegan in the Taycan, which carries less of a carbon footprint and yet, a lot of electric-charged thrill. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Alternatives to Leather Are Surprisingly …. Everywhere

The good news is that more has gone into researching sustainable and ethical alternatives to leather.

Faux leather has been around for several years now and is growing in popularity. But what is it and why is it a good alternative? It looks like leather, feels similar to leather and has many of the same attributes. Manufacturers say it will outperform leather in terms of wear and reliability. Even fashion brands like Matt  & Nat and von Holzhausen use create products out of vegan leather. And, it weighs less than leather, a consideration when it comes to fuel economy and battery electric efficiency. These are the main types of vegan leather:

  1. Synthetic Vegan Leather, also known as faux leather or leatherette. One of the cheaper alternatives to animal leather, synthetic leather is made from petroleum-based materials. It is sometimes referred to as “pleather” (plastic leather). This leather is fossil fuel intensive, which in turn is still bad for the environment, but these materials have a long use life; once installed in a car, it’s likely decades before it reaches the landfill
  2. Reclaimed Vegan Leather, which is made from post-consumer plastics, reclaimed ocean plastic, and other waste materials, is growing in popularity
  3. Natural Vegan Leather, which is made from organic matter (think of fruit byproducts like orange or apple peels, cactus, algae (kelp), pineapple leaves, cork, mushrooms and even paper). Compared to synthetic leather, natural leather is more sustainable and of better quality
A View Of The Front Seat In The Genesis Gv60

It’s luscious, it’s glowing and it’s sustainable: The Genesis GV60 vegan leather interior. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Pros to Vegan Leather

  • It is environment and animal friendly
  • It is sustainable and more economical
  • Less waste, as it can be made to order, all cuts are made according to a designer’s orders
  • Requires fewer toxic chemicals to produce it
  • Easy to maintain, shows less stains, and is waterproof

Other options include cork leather (harvested without harm to trees), Desserto, a material made from cacti plants, pineapple leaves that are readily available, as well as algae (kelp), also readily available, none of which are devastating to the rainforest.

Is Responsible Leather a Thing?

Of course – though we are waiting for it to be widely used in cars. The Leather Working Group is working with car companies including BMW and Bentley to help them create sustainable standards for leather interiors, including rating tanneries based on energy and water use, chemical disposal, and carbon emissions, as well as tracing and monitoring the entire supply chain. And companies like Elfa Leather, which uses leather by-products to create leather are rising in popularity. Soon we should start to see information on sustainable leather interiors in our cars, too.

Door Jewelry? Yes Please! The Crystal Door Controls On The Bmw Ix

“Leather” door panels on the BMW iX are the companies SensaTec upholstery. Photo: Scotty Reiss

No Shame in Going Synthetic

BMW would agree. The company has stepped up the use of SensaTec faux leather. Toyota would say so too: The company’s SofTex leatherette is a standard in many models – and so convincing you might not know it’s not leather. Most electric cars, including those from Genesis, Lexus, Audi, Ford, GMC and more only feature leatherette; real leather is not an option.

Many of these new technologies are promising, not just for their resilient and sustainable solutions, but for the use of materials we already have access to. And, the rainforest being saved, which also translates to your dollars being saved – not too bad.

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I teach 6th grade social studies, travel the world in the summer, write auto/moto news between grading papers and... More about Tabatha Chovanetz