Does the car industry understand leather?


As fans gathered to witness the unveiling of new car models at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, one question remains – did the car industry have a better understanding of the sustainability of leather versus materials derived from finite resources and be transparent in both its labelling of alternative materials and in its communication with customers?

The exterior is no longer the only point of interest when it comes to new cars – vehicle manufacturers are eager to transform and increasingly focus on marketing the interior of the car. We have seen a fashion for replacing leather, an organic material, with oil-based plastics and synthetics, somehow conflating ‘vegan’ with ‘sustainable’, which when the stated objective is sustainability, is a misrepresentation of science.

Man-made materials in vehicles aren’t necessarily a new phenomenon. They have been around for a long time – and can make sense for certain parts of the car where leather might not be the first choice. Most leather alternatives though, are made of plastic-based polyurethane chloride (PVC) and polyurethane, both of which pose serious environmental threats given that they are usually manufactured from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable.

Modern leather production supports a circular economy
Hides and skins are a by-product of the meat industry. It would be an ecological disaster to send them all to landfill instead of taking responsibility and making use of them and thus enable a circular economy. Properly made and sourced leather ticks all the boxes of a truly sustainable material.

Modern leather manufacturing is highly regulated and is a clean, non-polluting industry, and responsible car manufacturer brands use leather from reputable, audited sources. Leather is easy to care for, ages well and is very durable, and it will most likely survive longer than the alternative materials.

Demanding transparency from car manufacturers

Labelling of synthetic alternative materials for the interior of cars often incorporates the term ‘leather’ in an attempt to associate with the positive benefits of leather, but without being transparent about the true origin of the synthetic material used.

However, the term leather is strictly defined by British, European and International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) standards and refers to only material originating from the skins or hides of animals. As Dr Kerry Senior, director at Leather UK, the UK’s leather trade federation, pointed out in an article published in The Independent (15.08.19), “There is no such thing as vegan leather.”

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