What is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather refers to any material that’s not animal leather.

White vegan leather Tesla interior seats


There’s a lot of jargon in car shopping. Folks who aren’t otherwise interested in cars drop into the market every few years and find themselves trying to sort out the difference between electric and electrified, or one company’s Forward Collision Avoidance and another’s Pre-Collision System. Lately, a new buzzword has been gaining traction in the car world, especially in the rapidly growing electric vehicle segment: vegan leather. But anyone who’s been inside a car with this celebrated new material probably found themselves thinking, This looks and feels a lot like vinyl.

What is Vegan Leather?

What is vegan leather and how does it differ from friendly neighborhood pleather or leatherette? “It doesn’t,” says Susan Kozora, director of advanced engineering at International Automotive Components Group, a global supplier of automotive interiors. Vegan leather is a marketing term that can refer to any material that’s not animal leather—including petroleum-based products and cloth—and Kozora says it’s been in our cars for decades. But the fact that vegan leather is more of a rebrand than an innovation doesn’t mean its environmental bona fides are bogus.

Is Vegan Leather Better for the Environment?

Animal leather is resource intensive—think about the food, water, and land it takes to raise a cow—and the tanning process involves large amounts of water and toxic chemicals. Using synthetic materials means far fewer resources are expended producing the material and, while Kozora says manufacturing certain types of polymers–including PVCs and urethanes–requires the use of chemicals that would be dangerous in the event of a spill, the process still creates less toxic waste than leather manufacturing.

Not all vegan leathers are plastic-based. BMW has announced a research partnership with Desserto, a Mexican company that has developed a cactus-based leather alternative. IAC experimented with a mushroom-based material. There are also leather dupes made with pineapple leaves, teak leaves, and the non-edible parts of grains.

“One of the things I’m always cautious about [with new materials] is the durability and the ability to meet automotive levels of production demand,” says Kozora. If it takes huge cactus farms to supply enough material for an automotive line-up’s worth of pleather, is that material truly sustainable? What about if a spray-on coating makes a plant-based material durable enough to withstand car seat duty but means the fabric can’t be recycled when the car goes to the junkyard?

Figuring out how to recycle these plastics is crucial to the sustainability math that would make most vegan leather a smart choice for environmentally conscious carmakers. IAC has developed ways to reuse scraps that would otherwise be discarded after parts are stamped out of one of its natural-fiber materials (believe it or not, the scrap is called offal).

Kozora says that designing automotive interior parts so that the hard plastic base, the material that covers it, and the adhesive that joins them together are made of the same types of plastics will be increasingly important as automakers look to create circular economies for their products. That way, a car’s interior can be ground up and reconstituted without having to first be separated and sorted by whoever is scrapping the car.

Using those recycled materials in new cars will likely require a further round of rebranding on behalf of vegan leather. Kozora says customers—be they car shoppers or the engineers working with IAC to source materials for new cars—are often turned off by the phrase “recycled,” which suggests a product is cheap or low-quality. Kozora says that’s a misconception: “these are high-quality materials that are specifically compounded, and they’re tested five times more than a virgin material” would be. Don’t be surprised when you see ads for cars with vegan renaissance interiors.

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Annie White
After earning a degree in political science from Boston University in 2012, Annie White wisely chose to put those skills aside to pursue a career writing about cars. Since then, she has driven and reviewed hundreds of vehicles representing the full spectrum of the market and has also written about automotive technology and business trends. Her dream car is a Geo Tracker.