The Sustainability Debate: Leather vs Vegan Interiors in Vehicles


The recent wave of enthusiasm for vegan interiors in vehicles, originating from California and Tesla’s commitment to 100% vegan interiors, has been echoed by numerous brands worldwide. The mantra “Leather bad, vegan good” has been adopted by many, including influencers and environmentally conscious consumers. However, a recent report from the Markets Institute at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) encourages us to take a step back and consider the facts.

Contrary to popular belief, the leather used in vehicles has always been a by-product of the beef and dairy industries, making it one of the earliest examples of up-cycling and circular economy. The global automotive industry utilises about 20% of all leather hides produced due to our substantial demand for beef. These hides are used for car seats, steering wheels, and other interior components. Countries like Brazil, a leading producer of farmed beef cattle, rely heavily on the automotive industry to utilise their surplus hides.

If the automotive industry were to suddenly abandon leather in favour of vegan alternatives, the consequences could be environmentally damaging. The surplus hides would either be converted into gelatin or, more likely, end up in landfills where they would decay and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Moreover, most vegan alternatives are plastic-based, which not only rely on fossil fuels for production but also contribute to pollution as they do not degrade before entering marine ecosystems or landfills.

The sustainability journey, however, is not as straightforward as it seems. The WWF report highlights that using leather for cars is only beneficial if the cattle were farmed on land that has not been deforested or converted for intensive farming. This is referred to as DCF beef, and car manufacturers should ideally use DCF hides. Additionally, the report emphasises the importance of scrutinising the origin of the cows and their feed, as soy cultivation, a common cattle feed, is a significant contributor to deforestation.

The supply chain is becoming increasingly transparent, but the leather industry still has some catching up to do. According to the most recent Forest 500 report, while over 50% of palm oil is now sourced from land with a forest-protection commitment, most leather sources have not made a similar pledge.

However, there are exceptions within the leather industry, such as Bridge of Weir. This company, which supplies leather to brands like Aston, Land Rover, Volvo, Lotus, Lucid, and Ruskin Design, sources 98% of its raw hides in the UK and recycles 40% of its treated water at its Scottish plant. They also employ a thermal energy system that converts used energy into steam to power their tannery. Most importantly, Bridge of Weir only works with suppliers who can provide 100% traceability back to the cattle, the land they were farmed on, and their feed. This ensures that their leather does not contribute to deforestation.

In conclusion, while the choice between leather and vegan interiors may seem clear-cut, the reality is far more complex. Consumers must understand the full impact of their purchasing decisions on the environment. As we continue to strive for sustainability, it’s clear that we all have a role to play in making informed choices.