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PETA & the Secret History of Vegan Leather Car Interiors

The latest trend in eco-conscious cars is vegan leather interiors — but is it new tech, or just a new marketing angle?

PETA has been pressuring the auto industry to reduce or eliminate their use of leather for years. In that time, PETA has driven home the point that animals used for leather products die in agony with graphic descriptions (if not videos) of the ways cattle are treated in developing nations like India and China, where most leather goods come from. After PETA questioned Tesla’s CEO Technoking, Elon Musk, in person at an annual shareholder meeting — yes, it appears that PETA is long TSLA — he confirmed Tesla’s plans to introduce vegan leather, starting with an all-white vegan leather seat option in 2017.

That was big news for Tesla, and PETA’s people rightly pounded their chests over the victory. Almost immediately, PETA began using Tesla’s vegan leather option to add further pressure on brands like Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen to embrace the concept of cruelty-free vehicles and remove animal products like leather and wool from their offerings.

PETA did such a good job of promoting Tesla’s use of vegan leather, in fact, that many people — including a few CleanTechnica and Car and Driver staffers — seem to believe that it was some kind of “market first,” and that other companies like Volvo and Bentley had been “inspired” to follow in Tesla’s footsteps by offering their own synthetic/vegan leather options.

That belief is factually incorrect.

Vegan Leather in Cars is Nothing New

Synthetic, leather-like materials have been dated back to 15th century China, and have varied in popularity ever since. In the West, synthetic leathers have been in more or less constant production since 1846, when French scientist Louis-Nicolas Ménard first turned gun cotton into Colloidon. The industrial production of synthetic leather really picked up steam in 1910, however, when DuPont began making Fabrikoid — and, just a few years later, that stuff was everywhere.

Made by combing cotton cloth and nitrocellulose, Fabrikoid was used to make luggage, book covers, and upholstery. By 1914, it had even made its way into — you guessed it — the auto industry, providing durable, low-cost, and animal-free “leather” that was perfect for Henry Ford, who put DuPont’s Fabrikoid in more than 130,000 Model Ts that year.

Image courtesy of DuPont, 1915.

“Another great advertising campaign was, ‘How Many Hides Has a Cow?’” writes book conservation blogger Jeff Peachey of DuPont’s 1915 ad (above). “Since Fabrikoid was essentially a less nitrated nitrocellulose dissolved in castor oil, alcohol, benzene and amyl acetate, which was called pyroxilin (py-ROX-i-lin), it could be applied to different substrates: cloth, paper, or leather splits. DuPont hoped to capitalize on emphasizing the artificiality of ‘genuine’ leather, and also casually reminded readers that Fabrikoid was much cheaper.”

Fabrikoid wasn’t the only animal-free “vegan leather” to come out around that time. Another famous one was Naugahyde. Invented at the US Rubber (now called Uniroyal) factory in Naugatuck, CT, this synthetic hide (Nagatuck + hide = Naugahyde) was invented in 1914 and was rubber-based, and also found heavy use in both the luggage and automotive industries, where it continues to find customers today.

The real big player in the synthetic automotive leather game, though, hasn’t been Fabrikoid or Naugahyde for a long time. Today, that’s Alcantara.

Durable, High-Performance, and Animal Cruelty Free

Alcantara is a brand name, sure, but it happens to be the brand name that’s become synonymous with the interiors of serious, top-shelf, ultra-high-performance cars. Here’s a close-up of Alcantara’s soft, suede-like microfiber pile dyed in Blu Corsa, as found in the multimillion-dollar, twin-turbocharged, V8-powered Ferrari P80/C:

Image courtesy of Ferrari.

Image courtesy of Ferrari.

This use of Alcantara in motorsports is nothing new, either. As far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s, Alcantara was used in the interiors of off-road Lancia rally cars, endurance racers, and more. Here’s an Alcantara steering wheel and carpet in a Lancia Delta S4 from 1985:

Image courtesy of Robb Report.

Image courtesy of Robb Report.

And below is another, ultra-high-end quilted Alcantara interior in a custom Bentley Continental. This one by the renowned customizers at Vilner surely wasn’t the budget option. …

Image courtesy Vilner.

You’d hardly expect companies like Ferrari or Bentley (especially Bentley) to make a decision like this based on PETA’s influence — especially since the organization wasn’t even founded until 1980, fully two years after Fiat and Audi started using Alcantara in their production cars.

All of which kind of raises the question, “Why does PETA seem to be making such a big deal about Tesla’s vegan leather?”

PETA is No Stranger to Controversy

Despite its relatively benign name — really, who doesn’t think animals should be treated ethically? — PETA’s history is … “exceptionally controversial,” according to the public money watchdogs at Influence Watch, “with the group having allegedly maintained associations with violent radical extremists in the 1990s. PETA gave funds to the legal defense fund of animal liberation arsonist Rodney Coronado, to entities associated with the terrorist group Earth Liberation Front, and to other persons associated with alleged animal liberation extremist crimes.”

Which, I mean — arson is bad, but if you genuinely believe in the notion that, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” as PETA’s co-founder and President, Ingrid Newkirk, has said, it makes sense that you’d kind of do what you had to do in order to save those lives. The trouble is, PETA seems to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of the very same animals they claim to be trying to save. Data collected by Virginia’s state government show that PETA’s euthanasia rates at its own shelter is “exceptionally higher than other shelters in the state.”

“PETA’s headquarters is in Norfolk, Virginia, where it operates an animal shelter called PETA’s Community Animal Project,” writes Julia Marnin, who wrote an article fact-checking UberFacts’ claim for Newsweek. “There are no restrictions on the animals it takes in, even ones considered unadoptable. Free euthanization is offered.”

People like free stuff, I guess? I say that because, in 2015, the Washington Post reported that PETA “euthanized more than 80 percent of the animals in its care last year, a rate so shockingly high that Virginia lawmakers passed a bill [SB 1381] in February — nearly unanimously — to define a private animal shelter as a place where the primary mission is to find permanent homes for animals in this life, not send them on to the next.”

That’s not even the worst of it. In 2017, PETA paid the Zarate family $49,000 after two women associated with the organization took Zarate’s chihuahua from the trailer park where they lived and euthanized it before the end of state–required 5-day grace period. This wasn’t a sick or unwanted or mutilated dog being put out of its misery — this was a 7-year-old girl’s pet.

To follow their logic, then, it seems that euthanizing the Zarate’s pet was a mercy killing, as pet-hood, to PETA, is a fate worse than death. Their website reads, “This selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering, which results from manipulating their breeding, selling or giving them away casually, and depriving them of the opportunity to engage in their natural behavior.”

So, again, why is this organization spending time and energy to promote the use of animal-free materials that are already in widespread use, have the market advantages of being more durable and less expensive than the product they’re replacing, and — indeed — have already replaced, decades ago? Could it really be as simple as “they own Tesla stock?”

Nothing is Ever So Simple

For all the controversy and anger that PETA’s actions seem to generate, their brand of investment activism makes a lot of sense. Companies exist to serve the interests of the shareholders, after all — and if the shareholders decide that those interests include animal rights? The company had better listen. And that’s true even if the shareholder “only” owns a single share of said company — that’s enough to get a seat at the table, and have your voice heard.

A single share, by the way, is precisely how many shares of TSLA PETA was believed to own in 2017, according to CNBC.

peta-stock-holdings-2017

Image courtesy CNBC.

And, for what it’s worth, PETA’s investment activism has historically been a positive thing for both the organization’s cause and the bottom line of the companies they’ve invested in — at least, if you consider the fact that their portfolio has consistently out-performed the S&P 500 over the last decade or so to be a reliable indicator of that.

peta-stocks-spy

Image courtesy CNBC.

Simply put, PETA doesn’t own enough TSLA for this to be a money thing. It’s far more likely, then, that whoever is pushing for vegan leather and cruelty-free car interiors is acting in good faith, and is simply unaware that the battle they’re fighting was already won long ago. Heck, only real weirdos obsessed with old Italian rally cars and sporty Volvo R Types would probably know anything about Alcantara, anyway, and you probably don’t find too many car guys/gals at the local animal rights meetings.

Not that anyone asked, but the real reason is probably one that Tesla and Elon Musk understand very well themselves: Tesla gets attention. To be seen with Tesla, even arguing with Tesla, means press coverage, and Ingrid has said more than once that she and her colleagues at PETA are “complete press sluts.”

Wasn’t it Maya Angelou who said that, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”? It was, and we should.

 
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Written By

I've been involved in motorsports and tuning since 1997, and have been a part of the Important Media Network since 2008. You can find me here, working on my Volvo fansite, riding a motorcycle around Chicago, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.

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