Reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is a top priority as the effects of climate change become more apparent with each passing year. The response of motor vehicle companies has been to turn to the production of more fuel efficient engines and the development of a new breed of electric and hybrid vehicles. But more recently, manufacturers have also been looking at using sustainable vegan materials in order to take things to the next level. This trend has not only been embraced by automotive companies but also by the airline and marine industries.
Attention has turned to the interiors of not only cars but also yachts and air-plane cabins, in an effort to move towards more eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The first place manufacturers have looked is at the materials used for seat upholstery and steering wheel covers. With good reason: it’s not only fuel burned by vehicles; the processing of cow hides to make leather is also responsible for CO2 emissions.
When it comes to the auto industry, vegan leather seating has practically become de rigueur, especially in electric vehicles and high-end luxury models. The list of electric cars featuring vegan leather interiors is actually a very long one. A 2022 study of vegan-friendly car brands listed 25 manufacturers. Ford topped the list with 28 car models fitted with vegan-friendly details, followed by Honda (20), Nissan (19), SMART (17) and Chevrolet (15).
With so many sustainable alternatives to animal leather, there’s no good argument to continue using it. Gone are the days when cheap, unsustainable PVC ( polyvinyl chloride – a synthetic plastic) was the only animal-free option. Today vegan leather is made from many a variety of different (and sometimes surprising!) plant-based materials which have the added advantage of being not only eco-friendly but also often biodegradable. This list includes cork, apple peels, coffee grounds, pineapple leaves, mushrooms, kelp, kombucha, yeast, coconut water, cactus leaves, grapes, bananas, and even recycled plastic bottles.
In order to kit out a few of its most recent models with animal-free leather, Jaguar Land Rover joined forces with Japanese company Ultrafabrics™ which produces a leather alternative made from recycled plastic bottles, eucalyptus fibers, and a leather-free suede fabric. Its production generates only a quarter of the CO2 emissions of animal leather. (Source.)
Meanwhile, a few car companies have even developed their own vegan leathers from sustainable materials. Volvo’s first car to be decked out in faux leather seats was the C40 Recharge, using a material called Nordico made of recycled plastic bottles and wine corks. BMW is also looking at developing new materials to be used in car interiors in collaboration with innovative start-up companies. One of these is Deserttex™, produced by the Mexican company Adriano di Marti, and made of cactus fibres and a bio-based polymer. Another is a bio-based and petroleum-free material called Mirum™, a recyclable vegan leather made by US-based Natural Fiber Welding.
Of course, we’d be fooling ourselves to think that a 100 percent vegan car exists, largely because animals products are used in the production of steel and rubber. However, progress has been made when it comes to tire manufacture. In 2022, Michelin announced that it has developed a new tire made of 58 percent sustainable materials. These include pure natural rubber, recycled carbon black, sunflower oil, bio-sourced resins, silica from rice husks, and recycled scrap metal. This makes Michelin the only tire manufacturer that can boast tires free of animal products.
The sustainable vegan leather trend has also taken to the skies as airlines increasingly look at ways to reduce their environmental impact. Not only is vegan leather ethical and eco-friendly, it’s also lighter, saving airlines significant fuel costs. SkyLeather®, developed in Serbia, has been specially designed for aircraft seats, and is 25 percent lighter than animal leather. In an effort to reduce emissions, the Japanese airline ANA, launched its new ANA Green Jet in October 2022. The seats’ headrest covers are made of Ultrasuede®, a suede-like material produced from 100% plant-based polyester by Japan’s Toray Industries. Not only commercial airlines but also helicopters are being fitted with cruelty-free materials that simulate real leather. At the request of a well-heeled client, an Airbus corporate helicopter was decked out with vegan seats made of Ultraleather by Ultrafabrics.
Cruelty-free materials have also made their debut in luxury yachts. The explorer yacht Emocean has attracted lots of press for its eco-friendly interiors. Built by Rosetti Superyachts, this unique vessel was a special order by its vegan owners who requested no materials of animal origin be used on board. The yacht is fitted with rugs made with ECONYL®, a fibre produced from recycled fishing nets, while the sofa fabrics are composed of biodegradable materials. Another vegan yacht turning heads is Westport’s Tintin, which was also a custom order by animal activist boating enthusiasts. They insisted on all-vegan interiors, which were crafted using recycled materials and vegan leather.
This shift towards eco-friendly and animal-free materials is driving change in the transportation industry at it moves to the next level. “Bio-based”, “energy efficient”, “emission-reducing”, “zero-waste manufacturing”, and “circular economy” are the current buzzwords for this new age. As we speed into the future, it’s clear that sustainability is the new luxury.