Photo: Haryo Ramadantyo/Unsplash
The vegan leather it’s in the news for being, well, plastic. Most of the alternatives offered by the fashion industry are petroleum-based products, but the auto industry, at least, might be right to call it more “sustainable” than animal skin.
A New York Times report noted that the appetite for synthetic fabrics means the label “vegan” may imply “sustainable” when that is not always the case. Vegan leather is typically made from plastic, which is non-renewable and, along with other synthetic fabrics, can increase the buildup of microplastics in the oceans and the overall load of plastic landfills.
Vegan leather has a big problem
One of the problems with using vegan leather in fashion is that so much of it is so-called “fast” fashion: high-turnover, cheap brands that source materials and labor as cheaply as possible and try to get us all in on it. the celebrity-style idea: you can’t be seen in the same thing twice. It has been effective, the fast fashion industry was worth $91 billion in 2021 and that is only going one way: up.
vegan leather in cars
However, cars and trucks are not fast fashion items. As much as car manufacturers want us to buy a new one this year, the percentage of people who actually do is infinitely less than the number of us who buy new clothes once every few months.
Particularly for electric vehicles, vegan leather is quite hot for automakers to offer. All Tesla cars are free of animal leather and the Rivian R1Tthe Hummer EV and the Volvo C40 Recharge They only offer vegan leather, while other electric vehicles like the Mazda MX-30 have it as an option. They are all made of plastic, which ultimately means using oil.
The thing is, everyone here is a lobbyist. Leather producers say oil is worse, oil companies say there is a sustainability argument for synthetics, and natural fiber producers and processors say they are both wrong. Car manufacturers use leather more than the fashion industry; leather fell out of favor a while ago. So there’s a strong argument that, at least for cars, plastic is fantastic. Or at least, the lesser of two evils here.
The advantage of using plastic leather in cars
But the cars could be getting the equation right where fast fashion isn’t: Although oil to make plastic interiors is neither renewable nor sustainable, the environmental impact of a few hundred barrels of crude oil is a more manageable loss than a hectare of rainforest. Oil doesn’t burn when it turns into plastic, which means it doesn’t release (as much) carbon as gasoline. And we don’t usually drive a truck once and dump it in the landfill, so plastic is more of a contained problem.
There is hope on the horizon. The Mercedes Vision EQXX uses cactus leather in its interior, made by a company called Deserttex that also partnered with BMW to develop concepts.. Synthetic leather beyond oil exists, it’s just expensive compared to plastic. But then again, leather has always been expensive as an interior option, so swapping one for the other is a lot easier than tripling the price of those gold lamé shorts in your basket at ASOS.