Vegan Automotive Interiors?

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Recently, the former front-man of the band The Smiths and well known vegan activist, Morrissey, sent a letter to GM CEO, Mary Barra, suggesting that General Motors offer a vegan interior option in their two electric vehicles, the Chevrolet Volt and Bolt.

This got me to thinking. Are automakers missing out on a market by not offering specific animal product-free vehicle option packages? The only auto company that currently offers a package like this is Tesla. The now defunct soon to be reborn Fiskar used to offer a vegan interior with their “Ecochic” option package in their car which was called the Karma.

When I grew up in the 70s, luxury cars typically had velour interiors but leather seating has become more and more popular and now even entry level cars offer leather interiors and almost every car has a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear shift knob.

The appeal of a vegan interior that uses no animal products would seem to be a growing trend. More and more people are adopting a vegan diet and most are not doing it for health reason although they may claim that as a side benefit. They primarily see being vegan as a matter of ethics. They see using animals for food and other products as unethical. Even some people that are not vegan have issues with the treatment of animals.

In addition, the growing ecology movement sees large scale animal agriculture as being bad for the environment. Some groups claim that around half of global greenhouse gas emissions are created by animal agriculture.

Don’t worry; I’m not getting into the political and ethical issues surrounding environmentalism and veganism. My only point is to illustrate that this movement is large and seems to be growing, especially among younger people whose favorite buzz word seems to be “sustainability”.

It would seem to me that more automakers would benefit by offering a vegan interior option. You might say, we already have that, it’s called cloth interior. But many vehicles with cloth interior options still have a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear shift knob. Also, cloth interior is often only offered in the base model which not everyone wants. Besides, a lot of people don’t like cloth interior, they think it looks cheap.

Leather offers a number of distinct advantages besides appearing more premium than cloth. People like the look and smell of leather. They also like the durability, stain resistance and ease of cleaning that leather offers. Leather seats also make it easier to get in and out of the vehicle by allowing you to slide across the seat. If you have ever gone from a cloth interior to leather, you have no doubt noticed this. It is especially nice if you are dressed up, say wearing a long coat.

The point is that automakers need to offer another leather alternative besides cloth. This is where plastics come into play (I bet you were wondering how this related to plastics). As it turns out, the plastics industry can offer a couple of alternatives to leather that offer many of the benefits.

The first obvious choice is vinyl or PVC as we know it in the industry. Vinyl seats have been around forever but they do not have the best reputation. In the old days vinyl seats did not feel soft a supple like leather. They also seemed to wear out fast and ended up cracking and splitting.

However, PVC has improved a lot over the years. PVC can be made to feel just like leather now and actually offers better durability, stain resistance and ease of cleaning. I recently purchased some vinyl at a fabric store to reupholster some dining room chair bottoms and if I did not know it was vinyl, I’m not sure that I could tell. It is very supple and has a really convincing grain pattern on it.

Mercedes Benz offers vinyl seats in most of its lower priced cars under the name MB-Tex. Most buyers probably do not know that it is vinyl. It has proven to be very durable. BMW offers a similar material that is called SensaTec. They used to call it leatherette and it has a good reputation for durability. I perused a few BMW owner blogs and most people say it holds up better than leather.

The other option is polyurethane. Polyurethane is used for some interior parts but I do not believe that it is currently being used for seating. There is something called polyurethane leather, but it appears that it is actually made by coating a low grade split leather backing with polyurethane. This sort of defeats the purpose. Polyurethane would be an excellent option for steering wheels and gear shift knobs. About the only thing that PVC and polyurethane cannot replicate is the smell of the leather but the smell fades as the car ages anyway.

If automakers started offering a specific vegan option package on vehicles, it might help them attract younger buyers that they always seem to want. Entry level cars could offer a package with cloth seating and a non-leather wrapped steering wheel and gear shift knob. For higher end cars, vehicle manufacturers could get more creative with materials such as faux suede. Wood for interior trim pieces could be sourced using more sustainable methods as well. There are companies that pull up old logs from river bottoms to recover the wood. These logs were lost during old logging operations. This type of recovered wood could be used for interior trim pieces and be presented as a more environmentally friendly way of harvesting lumber. It is easy to imagine that a little creativity could create some interesting and appealing interior options.

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“Ecochic” interior option on Fiskar Karma

I found a few lists on the internet that vegans can use to help them select a car with no animal products and there are a few ways of doing it. You have to find a car that offers a non leather steering wheel and gear shift knob. This limits you to mostly an entry level car. You then buy the base model with cloth interior. The problem is that many people don’t want a base car and people in the US are not really that fond of ordering cars anyway. We want to take it off the lot.

It seems to me that an automaker could ingratiate themselves with these buyers by offering an interior option specifically designed to meet their needs. Hey, a good idea can come from anywhere, maybe Morrisey has a good point.

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