Are carmakers substituting leather by stealth?

ILM Editorial Blog - Martin Ricker
Published:  08 September, 2015
Martin Ricker

Many of you are familiar with the term “decontenting” which is most used the automotive leather segment and refers to the replacement of one material, i.e leather with another such as vinyl or some polyurethane derivative.

Decontenting is a bit of a clumsy, euthumestic word for which “substitution” would be far more appropriate as it is, effectively, what is happening here. Leather is being substituted by another material, yet, the end product is still marketed with the perceived benefits that leather comes to bear.

The automotive makers are, at the end of the day, in business to make money. There is nothing wrong with that and they can choose not to use leather if they wish.

What is wrong, however, is when they start substituting parts of a leather interior, which they know adds value and is highly appreciated by their customers, with other materials but still give the impression, through slightly dubious marketing, that the vehicle they are purchasing has a leather interior.

Recent legislation was brought into the EU in 2011 and in Brazil it has its ‘lei do couro’ to protect the use and labelling of leather in car interiors. However, many other parts of the world, such as Asia and North America, are left with descriptions such as “leather appointed” and “leather trim” used in the marketing brochure giving the impression that the car has a full leather interior when it may not.

It is now common for some OEMs to replace the side panels with non-leather materials while on the centre of the seat and the back are really genuine. Sadly, due to the heavy finishing of automotive leather with a heavy plasticised finish, the consumer is unable to tell the difference between the genuine and the imposter.

You may be also thinking that such practices only really occur on lower value cars but I’m told by reliable sources in the industry that BMW and Mercedes Benz are two brands that regularly substitute leather for other material in their cars.

So what’s to be done? At the ILM Automotive Leather Supply Chain conference in Shanghai on September 1, the topic was indirectly raised during the discussion panel session. It seems that the key areas to approach should be as follows: reach out to the consumer directly about the value of genuine leather in automobiles, work with engineers at the OEMs to find a way of allowing greater levels of more natural leather in cars while adhering to the physical and chemical requirements, and looking at further ways that the brand “leather” can protect itself from misleading marketing and product substitution.

It’s not going to be easy to change OEMs habits or educate consumers, but it has to be tried.

All comments are welcome.

Martin Ricker, Content Director, International Leather Maker

martin@internationalleathermaker.com

Twitter: @ILMEditor

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