Do Vegan Cars Exist? – A Guide to Non-Leather Interiors
A comprehensive guide to non-leather seating options in cars and a discussion of whether truly cruelty-free, vegan-friendly automobiles actually exist in the market today.
Nearly every motor manufacturer on the planet offers fabric trim on its base models, with leather seating only available as standard on premium trim levels, their top-end vehicles or as a costly optional extra.
However, an increasing number of firms are starting to embrace faux leather and other innovative new fabrics as an alternative to leather upholstery.
In this article, we examine what is driving this change, the advantages and disadvantages of non-leather car seats over leather clad ones, and the different options available to consumers looking for a non-leather alternative.
The problem with leather
Falling out of fashion
For decades leather seats have been viewed as the epitome of luxury by most car buyers. They consider leather to be natural, durable, sumptuous and cosseting.
Furthermore, leather seats, especially when new, give a car interior a premium look and feel, something which has not gone unnoticed by consumers, who are demanding leather upholstery even in mainstream vehicles.
But this notion is increasingly being challenged, both by a sub-set of consumers and by the car makers themselves.
There are basically four key groups of consumers objecting to the use of leather and other animal products in cars:
- Vegans: object on ethical grounds; believe it is cruel and exploitative to consume animals, because they have as much right to exist unmolested as humans do; argue there is no good reason to use leather when there are so many good alternatives available
- Environmentalists: argue that animal agriculture is unsustainable in the long run, due to the damage it is doing to the planet; rearing livestock is an inefficient use of resources, because the inputs outweigh the outputs; the increase in the human population is only going to make matters worse; the processing of leather is a hazard to humans
- Religious: certain groups like Hindus avoid leather from cattle because of their belief system; Jains avoid leather altogether, because it involves killing animals
- General Consumers: reject leather on purely aesthetic or practical grounds, i.e. they simply don’t like the look and feel of leather or think it is an impractical material for use in cars.
The arguments employed by each group are not exclusive and there is much overlap between them. Vegans, for example employ a lot of the points raised by environmentalists to bolster their own arguments, and many religious objectors would broadly agree with the vegans’ stance.
Similarly, increasing awareness about the damage we are doing to the environment, along with the growing popularity of recycling, means that many of the arguments put forward by environmentalists are starting to resonate with the general public too.
Let’s take a closer look at the arguments put forward by the two main groups of consumers who are against the use of animal products in vehicles – vegans and environmentalists.
Why do vegans beef about leather?
Before we go any further, it would be useful to actually define what the term vegan actually means. According to the Collins English dictionary, a vegan is:
“a person who refrains from using any animal product whatever for food, clothing, or any other purpose”
Vegans believe that it is morally wrong to confine, kill, eat, test or make products from any creature for the following reasons:
- It is cruel and exploitative towards animals
- It is speciesist, i.e. prejudiced towards animals, denying them the same rights we enjoy
- Animal farming is unsustainable and damages our environmental footprint
- There is growing evidence that eating animal-derived foods is bad for human health
They argue that using animals for food or products causes them unnecessary suffering, dehumanises the workers who slaughter and process animals, and prevents the wider adoption of cruelty-free diets and products across the globe.
Vegans also feel strongly about what they see as the hypocrisy of consumers of meat and other animal products. It is illogical, as far as they are concerned, to elevate certain species, such as cats and dogs, to special status simply because they make good pets, while treating others like commodities, especially when research shows that cows are complex creatures and pigs cleverer than dogs.
And while they celebrate the fact that fur is now shunned in many parts of the world, vegans also find it difficult to understand why leather doesn’t attract similar loathing from the public.
Of particular concern is the sheer number of animals that are killed each year to sustain humans’ appetite for meat, leather and other animal products. The figure in the US is 9 billion a year (1), and worldwide it is 70 billion (2), of which almost 300 million are cattle. (3) This animal kill counter illustrates the huge numbers involved.
There are currently approximately 600,000 vegans in the UK and their number has doubled twice in the last four years, going from 0.25% of the population in 2014, to 0.46% in 2016, to 1.16% today, according to Britain’s Vegan Society.
So, although vegans are still small in number, they are growing in size and influence, and becoming more organised and vocal too.
And they are increasingly turning their attention to one of the biggest consumers of animal products in the world: the automobile industry.
This video, which contains graphic images, exposes the treatment of cows destined for the car industry by one of the world’s largest leather processors:
As a result of this kind of exposure, car makers are slowly starting to pay attention to the concerns expressed by vegans and other animal rights advocates.
But isn’t leather just a by-product of the meat industry?
Not so, say vegans. It is a common misconception, shared with the dairy sector, that leather is just incidental to the meat industry.
They argue that the leather trade is highly profitable in its own right, and that the hide of a cow constitutes 10% of its entire value.
Also, the whole ‘leather is just a by-product argument’ is further undermined by the fact that luxury car makers often source the hides of cows that have been reared specifically for their quality leather.
These pampered creatures are transferred to special enclosures several weeks before slaughter and fed a special diet, in order to give their skin a chance to heal from any scratches they’ve sustained from barbed wire fences or tree branches. (4)
Whichever way you look at it, argue vegans, the meat and leather industries are co-dependent, and whether an animal is killed for its meat first or its skin, it ends up paying with its life either way.
Vegans assert that much of the cruelty and abuse found in the leather industry exists in the wool industry as well.
They also argue that the wool industry damages the environment in much the same way the cattle industry does, just on a smaller scale, so it’s bad for the planet too. (5)
This short video sheds more light on the issue. Be warned, though, it contains some distressing images of animal abuse, which is why it is age restricted on YouTube:
Vegans take a similarly dim view of silk production, arguing that most consumers don’t understand how silk is farmed.
Silk worm caterpillars enter the pupal stage by spinning a cocoon for themselves made from a fibre called silk. Left to their own devices, they emerge from their cocoon as silk moths.
However, silk farmers intervene at this stage by boiling the silkworms alive, in order to harvest the silk. This is the most common method used to trigger the unravelling of the silk thread from the cocoons.
Vegans find this unacceptable for two main reasons:
- The production of silk – even of so-called cruelty-free or peace varieties – involves the domestication, and therefore exploitation, of silkworms
- It is savage and cruel to inflict such pain on another living being; even if its nervous system is less developed than ours, it is still deserves to be treated humanely
According to PETA, approximately 3,000 worms are killed to produce 1 pound of silk. A more in-depth discussion of why vegan’s avoid wearing silk can be found in this article: Why Vegans Don’t Wear Silk.
Why do environmentalists object to leather?
Environmentalists are opposed to the leather industry because they see it as a key component of animal agriculture, which they blame for inflicting disproportionate and serious damage on the planet.
They argue that the industrial levels of animal farming we are engaging in around the world are responsible for damaging ecosystems, causing the loss of biodiversity and leading to the inefficient use of natural resources, and so must be reduced urgently.
They cite the following as key concerns:
- Green house gas emissions
- Water consumption
- Land use
Governments, scientists and organizations worldwide are in a race to halt global warming, but, warn environmentalists, progress will be limited unless we tackle one of the biggest contributors to the problem – farm animals.
An in-depth report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that livestock are responsible for 18% of green house gases that cause global warming. That is more than all the modes of transport around the world combined.
And the world’s 1.5 billion cows and buffaloes are the main culprits.
Livestock also emit over 100 other polluting gases into the atmosphere, including 64% of global ammonia emissions, a major cause of acid rain, and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions, the most damaging of the three major greenhouse gases.
Cows alone produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day, a gas that is estimated to have a global warming potential 86 times that of Co2 over a 20 year period.
Environmental campaigners say it is illogical to focus on reducing vehicle emissions and sustainability when the cows used to upholster the car seats continue to emit greenhouse gases and damage the environment unchecked.
The world is facing a fresh water crises. Although roughly 70% of Earth is covered by water, only 2.5% is fresh, non-saline water, and just 1% is easily accessible and therefore usable. (6)
But agriculture is using a disproportionate share of that precious supply. For instance, in the USA, agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of all water consumption (7), and over 50% of that is used to grow feed crops for livestock. (8) In contrast, just 5% of water in America is used by private homes. (8)
Environmentalists also point out that its not just the volume of water used that is a concern but also its inefficiency. The average cow slurps between 50-100 gallons of water per day, depending on season (9), and a staggering 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef. (10)
Regardless of whether they are being reared for their meat or their skin, cows are a serious drain on our water resources.
Factory farms are a major source of pollution, because they have serious difficulty managing the huge quantities of waste generated by livestock, according to campaigners.
To illustrate, 130 times more animal excrement is produced than human excrement in the USA each year (11), and just 2,500 dairy cows are estimated to produce as much waste as a city of 411,000 people. (12)
Some of this waste is mishandled or is deliberately dumped and ends up polluting rivers and streams. (13)
Environmentalists also take issue with the pollution caused by the leather industry specifically.
Leather hardens and rots if it is not treated using a tanning process. Up until the dawn of the 20th Century, hides were air- or salt-dried and tanned using vegetable tannins or oil.
Unfortunately, most leather produced today is tanned and dyed using a cocktail of salts, oils and chemicals that include toxic substances such as arsenic, cyanide and chromium.
To make matters worse, most leather production today is concentrated in countries like India, China and Bangladesh, which have lax environmental controls and where it is common for tanneries to simply dump their hazardous effluent locally, instead of disposing of it properly.
Unsurprisingly, many people working or living near tanneries die of cancer, which they suspect is a result of exposure to the toxic chemicals the industry uses.
This is an issue even in countries with much stricter regulations. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the incidence of leukemia among residents near one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average. (14)
A similar study of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.” (15)
The following short video offers a sobering glimpse of the human price of leather production:
The environmental lobby asserts that devoting vast tracts of land to animal husbandry and the production of biofuels is not only unsustainable but also highly inefficient.
According to their research, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction (16), and the loss of 136 million rainforest acres worldwide. (17)
Despite this, rainforests continue to be chopped down at the rate of 1-2 acres per second, resulting in the loss of 137 plant, animal and insect species every day. (17)
Livestock or livestock feed already occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land; we cannot afford to offer up any more. (18)
Besides, argue some environmentalists, it makes far more sense to grow plants on land rather than animals, given that 1.5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food, as opposed to just 375 pounds of beef (19), and that we are already growing enough food to feed 10 billion people. (20)
The Cowspiracy website contains much more information about the environmental cost of animal agriculture, for those who wish to delve deeper.
How many animals are killed for the auto industry?
According to the American automotive website Edmunds.com, 78% of 2015 model-year vehicles had standard leather seats on at least one trim level, and just 79 vehicles that model year didn’t require buyers to opt for leather at any trim level. (21)
It usually takes 3-9 hides to upholster leather seats in most cars, due to the high levels of wastage, but luxury brands such as Bentley and Rolls Royce can use up to 15-20 hides per vehicle.
Automakers used around 2 billion square feet of leather in 2014, which equates to roughly 45 million cowhides. (22) In fact, according to Bloomberg, 30% of leather worldwide is used in car interiors, making the auto industry the second biggest consumer of the material after shoemakers. (23)
Given that only a fraction of the world’s population currently own cars and that vehicle sales are exploding in countries like China, India and Brazil, it is no surprise that demand is already starting to outstrip supply. (23)
Leather vs. the alternatives
Leather as a luxury material
These days, leather is closely associated with quality and luxury, especially in the automotive sector.
Many consumers believe that a leather interior gives a vehicle an up-market aura and won’t consider buying a car without one. Equally, the majority of manufacturers fit their most expensive models with leather interiors as standard.
However, this wasn’t always the case. The passengers seats in the earliest cars were decked out in sumptuous fabrics, while the poor driver had to make do with a leather seat, because he was exposed to the elements.
Much later, and even more surprisingly, vinyl became all the rage. In fact, standard versions of the earliest Minis came with cloth interiors, whereas the top-end models sported a material dubbed Vynide, i.e. vinyl!
And it seems that the landscape is changing again, with luxurious fabrics making a comeback and numerous leather alternatives being pushed by car makers, both because they are cheaper to manufacture and more sustainable.
Automakers that are particularly notable for their efforts in this regard include Jaguar/Land Rover, Toyota/Lexus, Volvo and VW Group.
Now let’s explore the various seat upholstery options available to car buyers one by one, starting with leather.
What is leather?
Leather is an age old material made from the skin of animals, and famed for its durability and flexibility.
The vast majority of leather used in the auto industry comes from cattle, but it can be from other animals too. For instance, Audi’s A8 features headrests made from deerskin (24), and Bentley has developed a biosynthetic seat material made from jellyfish. (25)
Other animals used to make leather, though not necessarily for cars, include sheep, goats, pigs, deer, horses, lambs, alligators, crocodiles, kangaroos, ostriches and stingrays.
Leather used for car interiors usually comes in two main grades: top-grain, which includes full-grain (Nappa) leather, corrected leather, Nubuck, and Oxford; and standard grain or split leather.
How is leather made?
The leather manufacturing process involves three key stages: (26)
- Preparation – liming, de-liming, hair removal, degreasing, bleaching, and pickling
- Tanning – required to stabilise the hide; methods include vegetable, chrome, aldehyde, brain and alum leather tanning
- Crusting – involves thinning and lubricating, followed by drying and softening
Unless it is tanned, leather dries up, hardens, cracks and discolours, and becomes host to moulds and starts to rot. Even after tanning, leather needs to be maintained regularly, to prevent hardening and cracking.
Interestingly, the signature scent of leather isn’t natural, but comes from all the harsh chemicals used during the production process. (27) And it’s not a smell that is popular with everyone. The Chinese, in particular, hate the rich scent of genuine leather and would much prefer odourless hides! (28)
Automotive leather also differs from furniture leather in that it is stronger and treated with more chemicals to block the sun’s rays, increase durability and abrasion resistance, and minimize off-gassing (the emission of noxious gases). It is normally also sealed with a urethane top coat.
What are the pros and cons of leather?
+ premium look and feel
+ hard wearing and long-lasting, especially if maintained well
+ synonymous with luxury
+ absorbs fewer odours than cloth seats
+ gives off a unique scent
+ easy to wipe clean/vacuum
+ better suited to allergy sufferers
+ leather seats boost the resale value of a vehicle
+ offers better resistance to stains, spills and allergens vs. fabric
– more uncomfortable than fabric seats in hot weather; it can even burn occupants
– more uncomfortable than fabric seats in cold weather
– certain leathers (brushed and semi-aniline leather) stain easily, especially light colours
– costly to repair, especially if ripped
– extra cost option on many vehicles
– seats may look more worn than fabric ones used an equal amount
– production of leathers is environmentally damaging
– need to be treated/maintained to prevent hardening and cracking
– less friction than fabric seats, so occupants slide around more
– unlikely to recoup extra cost of leather seats when selling vehicle
– considered an unethical material by some
– you may need to pay extra to get the best quality leather
– some standard leathers can feel hard when you are seated on them
– uneven shape of hides leads to a lot of wastage during manufacture
– requires special cleaning agents
– perforated leather can collect debris
– worn leather seats look uninviting
What is suede?
Suede is a type of leather with a napped finish, giving it a soft and textured effect that is similar to many kinds of fabrics.
It’s name is derived from “gants de Suède”, which is the French term for “gloves from Sweden”, because the material was originally used in Sweden to make women’s gloves which were then exported all over the continent.
Suede is made from the underside of animal skin, which is softer and more pliable than the outer surface. Due to the lack of a tough exterior skin layer, good quality suede is less durable than traditional leather.
Lambs are the primary source of suede leather, although it can come from calves, goats and deer as well.
How is suede made?
Because suede is merely the underside of an animal hide, and because it is so soft and delicate, some manufacturers prefer to simply flip over a hide, so the underside is on the exterior, and work with that.
However, leather that has simply been turned upside down in this way, while being quite sturdy, will not possess the soft and delicate qualities that are considered the hallmark of suede.
The preferred and most popular method for processing suede is to split an animal hide, in order to remove the upper grain part, leaving just the soft and napped inner surface, which is then visible on both sides of the material.
Suede that has undergone this splitting process is softer, thinner and more pliable than full-grain leather, and is considered higher quality.
Like leather, suede is prone to rotting or becoming too hard or too soft at extremes of temperature, so needs to be treated and tanned before use. Suede also needs long-term maintenance.
What are the pros and cons of suede?
+ warm in cold weather
+ cool in hot weather
+ grippy, so no sliding in seats
+ soft and inviting
+ not sticky in hot weather
– hard to clean
– absorbs body oils easily
– dirt magnet
– prone to discolouration
– regular use creates a matted surface
– absorbs spills and stains easily
– require a special leather cleaner
– production of suede is environmentally damaging
– considered an unethical material by some
Cloth or fabric is by far the most common type of material used to upholster seats in a wide range of vehicles – everything from city cars to transit vans, in fact – and is usually the default option on non-premium vehicles, especially on base models.
The fabric used to cover car seats normally comes in two main varieties: nylon or polyester.
Manufacturers love nylon, because it is hard-wearing, affordable, easy to cut and stitch, and can be offered in many different colour combinations. The major downside of nylon fabric is that it is very porous, so traps a lot of dirt and debris.
Polyester is also popular with car makers offering cloth seats. The most common type of polyester used in car interiors is Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), otherwise known as Teflon.
PTFE is popular because it is durable and resistant, so able to withstand chemicals in cleaning fluids, as well as mould and mildew. It is also resistant to UV rays, which means it doesn’t discolour or fade as quickly as some other fabrics, making it ideal for use on sun-baked car seats.
Some companies use a hybrid fabric that is a mix of nylon and polyester, to make use of the properties of both materials.
There is a third option, PVC fabric, but it’s not very comfortable and it’s usually reserved for use in only the most budget priced models, where car makers are desperate to cut costs.
For guidance on cleaning cloth seats, please click on the link.
What are the pros and cons of cloth/fabric seats?
+ more comfortable than leather in hot weather
+ more comfortable than leather in cool weather
+ standard, no-cost option on most cars
+ low maintenance
+ good UV-resistance
+ less environmentally damaging to produce than leather
+ offers better friction, so grips occupants better
+ up to 100% of fabric can be recycled
+ breathes better than leather or leatherette
+ offers more design options than other materials
+ considered the ethical option
– considered low-rent and not premium
– difficult to find luxury cars with cloth seats
– not as durable as leather seats
– absorbs spills more easily than leather
– stains easily, especially on light colours
– absorbs more odours than leather upholstery
– attracts dust, pet hairs and dander easily
– harder to clean than leather
– more likely to harbour allergens
– rips more easily than leather
– animal products such as wool may still be used
– more likely to generate static
What are premium textiles?
This category encompasses a range of rich, high quality fabrics, which are usually made from natural materials, that lend an upmarket appeal to any interior they are used in.
Premium textiles are exactly what they are labelled, high quality materials that are a world away from the drab grey upholstery that is offered as standard on mass-market cars.
Candidates include wool/broadcloth, velour, silk and tweed, though the latter is mostly used in car seat covers these days.
As mentioned already, cabins decked out in luxurious fabrics were standard fare at the dawn of the motoring age, and it was not until much later that leather became popular and synonymous with luxury car interiors.
In fact, some textiles, such as velour and tweed, didn’t fall out of fashion completely until as late as the 1980’s.
Textiles making a comeback
The good news for consumers looking for choice is that premium textiles are slowly making a comeback, a trend being fuelled by fashion, and by increasing concerns about environmental and animal rights issues.
Toyota’s Century, a luxo-barge favoured by Japan’s royals, prime ministers and captains of industry, comes with a wool interior as standard and has done for many years. (29)
In 2015, Maserati collaborated with the Italian luxury fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna to release a range of special-edition models featuring Zegna Mulberry Silk, a hard-wearing, proprietary silk weave specially designed for car seats, though they still came with lashings of leather. (30)
A year later, Rolls Royce unveiled a futuristic concept car called the 103EX which featured a silk-clad back seat that was essentially a sofa for two. (31)
Not to outdone, Mercedes-Benz recently decided to revive the plaid wool fabric it originally offered in its Mercedes-Benz 300SL back in the 1950’s. (32)
Clearly, animal derived materials are still the preferred option of many manufacturers, but at least there is some progress being made in moving away from the use of leather to convey luxury.
More alternatives in the pipeline
And research to refine traditional materials and develop modern alternatives is ongoing.
For instance, Lamborghini has experimented with carbon fibre fabric in its one-off Aventador J roadster. Unfortunately, although very lightweight and strong, the material is also eye-wateringly expensive, so a long way off from breaking into the mainstream.
A more realistic proposition, at least for the time-being, is a wool/synthetic blend promoted by Swiss firm Climatex. Not only is it more resilient than wool alone, but it can also be separated at end of life for easy recycling or composting.
Of course, one major drawback of premium textiles, at least for ethical consumers, is that wool and silk are considered unsuitable, due to the fact that they still involve the domestication and exploitation of animals. However, there is progress to report on that front too.
Land Rover has been working closely with Danish textiles house Kvadrat to redefine the concept of a luxury interior by developing a tough but luxurious wool and polyester blend that is both warm and modern. (33)
The firm is so confident of the material’s durability and premium appeal that it is offering it on the top trims of its Velar model, pricing it above the standard leather option.
Volvo has taken a similar tack by offering its latest V60 estate with what is calls ‘Blond City Weave Textile Upholstery’, i.e. cloth seats featuring a striking check pattern. (34)
For more information about vegan’s objections to animal products, please refer to the sub-section of this article entitled Why do vegans even object to wool and silk?!.
What are the pros and cons of premium textiles?
+ can be recycled
+ warm, soft and inviting
+ easier on the environment
+ much more premium looking than cloth
+ breathe better than leather or leatherette
+ offer better friction, so grip occupants better
+ more ethical than leather (depending on textile)
– dirt magnets
– easily absorb spills and odours
– attract dust, pet hairs and dander easily
– harder to clean than leather
– more likely to harbour allergens
– rip more easily than leather
– may still include animal products, e.g. wool
– fabrics suffer damage if overly exposed to light
What is artificial leather?
Artificial leather is a synthetic material that is designed to mimic the look and feel of natural leather.
It was originally considered more desirable than leather or fabric, hence its inclusion on the earliest Minis with the highest trim level, but it slowly fell out of favour for a long time, perhaps because the material execution started to look increasingly cheap.
However, substitute leather has been making a steady comeback over the last few years, primarily for the following reasons:
- Cheaper and more sustainable than real leather for manufacturers
- Mimics the real thing more convincingly then ever before
- Possesses properties that natural leather does not have
- Demanded by animal lovers, the environmentally conscious and other consumers
- Considered cool again, so back in fashion
How is artificial leather made?
Artificial leather is basically made by applying a Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or Polyurethane (PU) coating to a fabric made of natural or synthetic material, such as polyester, cotton, nylon, or rayon, and then running a roller over it to create a grain effect.
PU leather is generally considered to be a more realistic imitation of natural leather than vinyl, mainly because it looks and feels more authentic, even to the point of ‘breaking’ and wrinkling like the genuine article, and because it remains soft and supple and doesn’t crack or peel like vinyl does over time.
The following video details exactly how man-made leather is manufactured:
Other sources of faux leather, though not necessarily for use in the auto trade, include cork, and mushroom and other fungi.
Bonded leather is made by mixing shredded, natural leather with PU, layering the resultant pulp on a fibre or paper base and then embossing it to create a leather-like texture.
To make bicast leather, producers take the split or lower layer of an animal hide as a single layer, give it a PU or vinyl coating and then apply an artificial grain.
The manufacture of leather substitutes is generally less polluting than the production of genuine leather, but the picture is not as clear cut as many think, and it is changing as both sides make efforts to clean up their act and become better environmental stewards.
For example, Toyota says its artificial leather, marketed as Softex, generates about 85% fewer carbon dioxide emissions and 99% fewer Volatile Organic Compounds than conventional synthetic leathers during the production process.
Simply click on the link for guidance on how best to clean faux leather.
How do I identify faux leather?
It’s becoming fiendishly hard to differentiate faux leather from natural leather, because manufacturers have made incredible strides in imitating the texture and appearance of the real thing over the last few years, in some cases even adding chemicals that give off a leather-like scent to ensure customers don’t feel short changed!
According to J.D. Power’s 2015 Seat Quality and Satisfaction Study 79% of owners of one mass market mid-size car stated it had leather seats, when the true figure was likely nearer 41%, given the vehicle’s trim level.
Complicating matters further is the fact that imitation leather is often used in ‘no-impact’ areas of a seat, such as the base, side bolsters, head restraint and seat back, and real leather in parts your body is in contact with, i.e. the seat and backrest.
The best way to be certain you are buying a leather substitute and not the real thing is to check at the time of purchase, either with the dealer or with the manufacturer.
Also, when studying a car’s specifications, look out for giveaway terms such as leatherette, leather-like, synthetic and so on in the sales literature or online.
However, you still need to be careful, as car makers are not always entirely up-front about their use of synthetic seat materials.
Toyota had its wrist slapped by Australian authorities a few years back for exactly this, though, to its credit, it quickly changed its advertising to state ‘leather accent’ or ‘leather accented’. (35)
Kia also upset customers a while ago by not being frank about its use of synthetic leather in certain models sold in the UK. The lesson: as always, check the small print! (36)
Confirming the seat material is even more problematic when you are buying a second-hand vehicle, because the owner might not know for sure.
In case you are faced with that predicament, here are some tell-tale signs that indicate you are handling real leather:
- Press down on leather with your fingertip and the pattern of cobweb-like creases that appear will be more pronounced and take longer to disappear than on faux leather
- Leather has a more buttery and supple feel to it, whereas some manufactured leathers still suffer from a slightly plasticky feel, though this is becoming less common
- Inconsistently spaced pores on real leather, as opposed to perfectly spaced even or repeating pores on the fake stuff
- The signature scent of genuine leather, although this is becoming less of a dead giveaway these days
- Edges that overlap may have a slightly course and ragged appearance on real leather, in contrast to a clean, uniform finish on artificial leathers
American drivers can consult a free database detailing the seat material used in most cars manufactured since 2000. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to find a similar resource that helps British drivers.
What names are applied to artificial leather?
A host of different terms are used to signify manufactured leather. Common ones that you will come across include:
- Vegan leather
- Faux leather
- Imitation leather
- Protein leather
- Artificial leather
- PU leather
- Synthetic leather
- Fake leather
Several manufacturers attach proprietary brand names to the leatherette they use, particularly if they developed them in-house. Here are a few examples:
- BMW: Sensatec
- Jaguar/Land Rover: Luxtec
- Lexus: Nuluxe
- Mazda: Maztex
- Mercedes-Benz: Artico, MB-Tex
- Nissan: Syntech
- Toyota Softex
- Volkswagen: V-Tex
Who are the main manufacturers of artificial leather?
The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does capture many of the leading players in the industry, along with the brand of synthetic leather they produce:
Ananas Anam: Piñatex®
Du Pont: Fabrikoid
Uniroyal Global: Naugahyde®
Knitwell Industries: Rexine
Toray Industries: Ultrasuede®, Ecsaine®
Vyva Fabrics: Dinamica®
What are the pros and cons of artificial leather?
+ can look as premium as leather
+ as little as 1/3 of the cost of leather to produce
+ arguably less environmentally damaging than leather
+ produces less waste and emissions than leather during production
+ can withstand use of harsh cleaning fluids better than leather
+ more pliable and stretchable, easy to cut and sew
+ can convincingly imitate the supple look and feel of real leather
+ durable, maintains its look much better than leather
+ lower cost option to buy than leather
+ does not crack, fade or harden like real leather
+ easier to clean than leather
+ minimal treatment/maintenance required
+ stains less easily than leather or fabric
+ more scratch resistant than real leather
+ less porous than natural leather
+ allergy friendly
+ consistent appearance
+ less expensive than leather
+ more water repellent than either leather or fabric
+ able to give a uniform look, unlike leather
+ considered more ethical than leather
– more uncomfortable than fabric seats in hot weather
– more uncomfortable than fabric seats in cold weather
– creates less friction than fabric or suede seats, so occupants slide around more
– extra cost option on some cars
– not offered by all manufacturers, especially across their entire vehicle range
– some lower grade artificial leathers can still look and feel cheap
– certain artificial leathers use non-biodegradable or non-renewable materials
– some artificial leathers contain leather remnants/scraps of old leather (37)
– does not develop a luster or patina over time like leather
– PU finish may crack and peel off over time
– still some environmental costs associated
– does not breath like natural leather
What is faux suede?
Faux suede is a man-made synthetic material that convincingly mimics the look and feel of suede leather, which comes from animals.
Ultrasuede®, Alcantara® and Ecsaine® are all different trade names for a material that was invented in 1970 by a scientist named Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto, while he was working in the laboratory of Toray Industries of Japan.
Toray decided to position Dr. Okamoto’s invention under distinct brand names in key markets across the globe.
It is sold as Ultrasuede® in America, and Ecsaine® in Japan. All the material sold under these two brands is produced in Japan.
In Europe, the firm decided to partner with the Italian oil giant Eni S.p.A. and market the synthetic suede under the Alcantara® brand. Alcantara® is manufactured exclusively in Italy under strict environmental controls and using a carbon neutral production process.
Alcantara® is marketed worldwide as a luxury material catering to the top-end of the market, and it is most commonly associated with sports and performance vehicles.
Ultrasuede® and its two variants, are a mix of polyester and polyurethane. The material is renowned because it is resistant to flames, stains, discolouration, pilling and fraying, and can be machine washed.
Microsuede is a micro-fibre made from 100% polyester and designed to imitate natural suede. It is cheaper than Ultrasuede®, but not quite as durable.
One of the world’s leading brands of micro-fibre suede is Dinamica®, a synthetic that is noted for being lightweight, breathable, low maintenance and resistant to pilling
There has been innovation in this segment of the upholstery industry just as there has for genuine leather, faux leather, cloth and premium textiles.
A prime example of this is a new product from Ananas Anam called Piñatex®. This wonder material is made from pineapple leaves, which up until now were considered waste material and simply discarded.
Among the advantages this natural fibre are that it is 100% vegan, totally biodegradable, as hard-wearing as any alternative, heat and water resistant, lightweight and competitively priced.
Click the following link to get tips from the manufacturer on how to remove stains from Alcantara® leather. Additionally, this video details how to clean suede and Alcantara® interiors:
What are the pros and cons of faux suede?
+ warm in cold weather
+ cool in hot weather
+ grippy, just like natural suede
+ soft and inviting
+ not sticky in hot weather
+ doesn’t discolour quickly
+ easy to clean
+ stain resistant
+ flame retardant
+ ethical choice
– absorbs body oils
– dirt magnet
– regular use creates a matted surface
– often priced the same as genuine leather
– starting to appear on non-premium vehicles
What if I don’t want leather in my car?
Check out our list of cars without leather seats
We’ve visited the website of every mainstream car company operating in the UK today and compiled a list of all the models available with non-leather seat options.
Cars with part leather seats have been excluded, only ones with fabric, premium textile or artificial leather made the grade.
We plan to update the resource at a future date with information about steering wheel and gear knob options.
If a vegan seat option is not available as standard, ask the dealer if it is available as a custom option, though you may have to wait weeks, possibly even months, extra for delivery of your vehicle.
You can view our table by clicking on the link below:
It’s not just about leather seats in cars
One of the big conundrums ethical consumers face is that even if the model they want is available with fabric or faux leather seats, it may still come with a steering wheel or gear stick wrapped in animal skin, defeating the object of the exercise somewhat.
While some manufacturers do offer alternative coverings on these components, such as wood rimmed steering wheels, many do not, especially when it comes to their luxury vehicles.
This state of affairs is less than ideal for consumers and car makers alike. If a consumer is forced to compromise on their principals they may be left frustrated, and if they simply walk away from the sale, both the buyer and the company lose out.
A second best option for some drivers is to buy a non-leather steering wheel cover, but this can damage the original steering wheel material by rubbing and scraping against it.
Tyres contain animal ingredients too
Most people focus on the interior when they think about the use of animal products in a car, but this is not the only place where they are used.
Most tyre makers utilise an animal-derived fatty acid called stearic acid, also known as tallow, during the manufacturing process. The ingredient is used to vulcanize rubber tyres, increasing their strength and elasticity, so they can handle contact friction and grip the road better.
One firm that does offer vegan tyres is Michelin. The stearic acid they use is derived from plants. Another maker is Kenda, who use refined tree oil instead of animal fat.
And animal products are embedded even deeper in a vehicle than the tyres. The steel or aluminium used in the frame of your car may well have been lubricated at the mill using grease made from animal by-products, and many of the glues used in the motor industry also have animal ingredients.
In addition, biodiesel often contains tallow.
Other considerations for ethical car buyers
While the focus of this article has overwhelmingly been on the use of animal products in car interiors, especially for seats, it is important to remember that buying an ethical or environmentally sound car is not just about snapping up a leather-free model.
A host of other factors come into play when making a choice, all of which need to be considered:
- use of environmentally-friendly tires
- percentage of recyclable plastics and fabrics used
- amount of noxious emissions emitted
- overall fuel efficiency
- energy efficiency of the manufacturing process
- manufacturer’s treatment of workers and respect for labour laws
Some consumers argue that buying a non-vegan car second-hand is more ethical than buying it new, because you are not directly responsible for optioning its leather interior.
Furthermore, by buying used, you are in recycling and extending the use of an existing product, which is a win for the planet.
Advocates of buying used also argue that it is much harder to walk away from a good second-hand bargain just because it has leather inside, particularly when all the other factors line up or when you are on a tight budget, than if you are buying brand new and so have the luxury of choice.
This is a complex and contentious debate, but one of the biggest counterarguments vegans put forward is that even when buying animal products second- or third-hand you are still contributing to animal cruelty and environmental damage, and doing nothing to abate demand.
Custom Options and Bespoke Interiors
If you really have your heart set on a particular car that is not available with vegan seats as standard, and you are buying new, it may be worth asking the dealer or the manufacturer if they provide a custom option.
Due to the complexities of a modern production line, it may not be possible for the car company to oblige, and even if they can, you may need to wait weeks or even months longer than usual to take delivery of your vehicle, but it is one avenue you can explore.
Failing that, or if you are buying used, you could consider getting a vegan interior retro-fitted by an independent auto upholstery shop. This option is mighty inconvenient and expensive, we agree, but if you really don’t want to sit on cow hide…
One aftermarket specialist offering bespoke imitation leather interiors to British motorists is Seat Surgeons. They offer everything from single seat covers to full-blown interiors in a range of colours and designs, all made from a faux leather called TeKKo.
Do vegan cars really exist?
At present, it is impossible to buy a truly vegan car. Leather is automatically the default upgrade option or the upholstery of choice, especially when it comes to speccing executive cars. Even if leatherette is available, it is likely that the steering wheel and gear stick will be coated in animal skin, the tyres will contain animal fat, and the metal body will be embedded with animal products.
However, as we’ve seen the landscape is changing – albeit slowly – and, certainly when it comes to seat upholstery, the automotive industry is starting to offer a wider variety of options than just cloth or leather.
Arguably the most vegan-friendly car company in the world currently is Tesla, because it offers vegan interiors across its entire range.
BMW, though not in the same league as Tesla yet, also scores high marks for the ethical and environmental credentials of its i3, which is not only electric and leather-free, but also 95% recyclable.
Other firms that deserve praise for embracing non-leather alternatives, at least on some models, include Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Lamborghini, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Toyota/Lexus, Vauxhall, Volvo and the VW Group.
Make Your Voice Heard
The fact that not all brands cater to ethical consumers doesn’t mean that vegans, environmentalists and other concerned car buyers should just give up their cause. Far from it.
At the end of the day, car makers are in the business of making money, which means they respond to market signals. The more consumers bang their drum about the use of animal products and demand change, the more likely firms are to take on board their views and the quicker change is likely to come.
The video below captures animal rights advocates urging Tesla to drop leather entirely from its vehicle range at one of the manufacturer’s shareholder meetings:
(NB. the relevant section of footage spans 03:20 – 13:20 minutes)
And its not just about voicing your dissatisfaction. If a manufacturer switches to an animal-free alternative and you approve of the move, or you are simply impressed with the quality of the product they’ve used, then let them know. Positive feedback is just as valuable as critical feedback.
Ultimately, off course, you can send your message loud and clear by simply voting with your wallet. That normally gets firms’ attention!
How can I find out more about vegan cars?
While there are literally thousands of websites devoted to all aspects of vegetarian and vegan dining, and almost as many covering the automobile industry, there are very few good resources available to animal-loving car owners.
However, its not a complete desert out there. Here are a few essential resources we’ve managed to unearth that will help you identify vehicles optioned with non-leather seats:
Car makers’ websites, sales literature, dealerships and customer service departments should be your first port of call, either to confirm options or to make your voice heard. They are also the best source of up-to-date information about interior options on their model line up.
Autogefühl – not only is Autogefühl an excellent YouTube channel featuring the latest in-depth auto reviews, but presenter Thomas Majchrzak, a keen supporter of animal rights, always makes a point of detailing vegan seat options during every car review he does.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – although PETA’s list of vegan cars is primarily aimed at the American market, there are still a good few models listed that are available globally, making the website a useful stop for those looking to get behind the wheel of an ethical motor.
Albright’s Supply – another US website, so of limited use to motorists on this side of the Pond, but included here for the sake of completeness. Albright’s Auto Originals online database lets you search for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) fabrics for any car made between 2000 and 20017.
The Hog Ring.com – industry news website and online forum for auto upholstery professionals in the US, but one that contains many articles about vegan seat materials, making it of interest to car buyers worldwide.
Animal exploitation on an industrial scale, and consequent damage to the environment, have galvanized animal lovers and the environmentally conscious into action.
In response, and in a bid to cut costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions, many car makers have begun to offer a number of alternatives to leather seats, especially in their high-end vehicles.
These options range from various types of faux leather that closely imitate the look, feel and even smell of the real thing, to luxurious new hi-tech fabrics in daring designs.
Consumers now have more choice than ever, but the prevalence of leather steering wheels and gear shifts, the continued use of animal products in steel and glue, along with the lack of availability of non-leather seats on every trim and model offered by manufacturers, means that truly vegan cars are still a long way off.
7) USDA: Economic Research Service, How Important is Irrigation to U.S. Agriculture? (October, 2016) 12.
8) Jacobson, Michael F., Six Arguments For a Greener Diet: How a More Plant-based Diet Could Save Your Health and the Environment (Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2006) Chapter 4: More and Cleaner Water.
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