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Tesla Vegan Leather Seats — How Not To Destroy The Rainforest

Leather remains a lucrative commodity and a big problem for many automotive brands, which are being linked to the environmental degradation of the Amazon rainforest.

I haven’t eaten red meat since 1980, but, for a long time, I rationalized wearing leather shoes, boots, and coats. I thought that, rather than being wasteful, I was using the after-products of animal agriculture already produced for consumption. After reading the recent New York Times exposé — produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network — I know that my reasoning was truly faulty. I should have always chosen vegan leather.

The Times article followed a rancher who raised cattle on illegally deforested land in the Amazon. By selling them, he obscured cattle’s role in the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, an act to which I was complicit by purchasing animal leather products. To hide the true origins of his cattle, the rancher structured his sales by introducing a middleman and constructing a false paper trail.

It was as if his animals were raised on a legal ranch. Other ranchers in the area do the same, he said. “It makes no difference,” he explained, whether his farm was legal or not.

You might think that Brazil’s rapidly expanding slaughterhouse industry sells mostly beef. However, that’s not the full picture. In fact, Brazil is the conduit for tons of leather directed annually to major companies in the US and elsewhere.

Such commerce in leather demonstrates how our western consumer culture is innately tied to environmental degradation in developing nations. According to the World Bank, the Amazon is a region that hosts 40% of the world’s remaining rainforest, 25% of its terrestrial biodiversity, and more fish species than in any other river system.

The animal leather trade is helping to fund destruction of the Amazon despite scientific consensus that protecting it would help to slow global warming. With rapid deforestation, it has been estimated that 20% of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in the last 50 years, leading to severe biodiversity loss and contributing to climate change. Forest disappearance destroys the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Ironically — or hopefully — Brazil was one of more than 100 nations to pledge to end deforestation by 2030 at the recent United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.

 Leather for Luxury Automobiles, Sacrificing the Rainforest

Part of the appetite for the Amazon’s leather emerges from the luxury vehicle market. An auto interior can require a dozen or more hides. The hides of millions of cattle supply a lucrative international animal leather market valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

The Times traced the complex global trade that links Amazon deforestation to a growing appetite for luxurious leather seats in pickup trucks, SUVs, and other vehicles sold by some of the world’s largest automakers — like General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen.

  • GM released a statement that it expected suppliers to “comply with laws, regulations, and act in a way consistent with the principles and values” of the automaker.
  • Ford explained that it aspired “to source only raw materials that are responsibly produced.”
  • Volkswagen insisted its suppliers already adhered to a high level of sustainability.

Vegan Leather Is Becoming Fashionable for Auto Manufacturers (Whew)

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reminds us that it has been working for years to put vegan vehicles on the road, pushing and persuading auto brands to embrace leather- and wool-free seats and steering wheels. The non-profit makes the argument that an eco-conscious car manufacturer should be consistent in its entire production by rejecting the burning of the Amazon rainforest as well as the wool industry, which poisons water supplies.

Once upon a time, Tesla’s Model 3 included a leather-wrapped steering wheel by default. By 2017, all Tesla seats became available from synthetic materials. In 2019, the last animal products were removed from the Model 3 — a new, synthetic-leather-wrapped steering wheel was revealed. Although the vegan leather steering wheel didn’t include a heating element and presented the challenge of less favorable long-term wear than leather, customers responded positively to the environmentally-grounded changes. Now all new Model 3 and Model Y cars ship with premium synthetic seats and a vegan leather steering wheel.

Tesla’s high-end vegan leather is not the only game in town. Other automakers also boast about their vegan leather interiors:

  • Ford: The Ford Mustang Mach-E comes standard with all-vegan interiors, including a vegan steering wheel.
  • Toyota: While Toyota does offer leather seats and steering wheels in some models, it’s easy to find a vegan Toyota. Look for Softex, Toyota’s vegan leather alternative, in premium or upgraded Toyota models. Base model Toyotas generally come with cloth seats.
  • Volvo: The company wants to make all cars leather free by 2030. Although, it intends to continue offering wool blends. Edmunds reports that the model year 2022 C40 Recharge and all future electric vehicles will be leather free.

What is Vegan Leather, Anyway, and Why is it Preferable?

The main concern for most people when deciding between animal leather and vegan leather is the impact it has on animals and the environment, especially for biodiversity-rich areas like the Amazon rainforest. The term “vegan leather” describes several material alternatives to animal leather — vegan leather looks, feels, and has the same attributes as leather, without having to sacrifice animals in the making.

The general category of vegan leather can be broken down into two types, according to The Vou:

Old-fashioned synthetic vegan leather, also known as faux-leather. Synthetic leather is made from petroleum-based materials and was one of the first attempts at making cheaper alternatives to animal leather. It has generally been produced from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU) and is sometimes referred to as pleather (plastic leather). This type of vegan leather is detrimental to the environment.

More recently developed natural vegan leather. Natural vegan leather is made from organic matter, such as fruit byproducts, mushrooms, cactus, algae (kelp), orange and apple peels, pineapple leaves (pinatex), cork, barkcloth, and even paper. When compared to synthetic leather, natural vegan leather is sustainable and has better quality.

There are several benefits that make vegan leather preferable over animal leather:

  • Vegan leather is cruelty free and animal friendly. No animals are sacrificed in the process of making vegan leather.
  • Most vegan leather is sustainable and environmentally friendly.
  • Vegan leather can be made to order, which means there is no material wastage — all parts and sizes are cut according to the designer’s needs.
  • Vegan leather manufacturing emits less CO2 and greenhouse emissions than animal leather and also requires fewer toxic chemicals to produce it.
  • Vegan leather is waterproof and easy to maintain.
 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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