Living in the countryside without public transport makes choosing a motor car difficult. Range anxiety and ready access to recharging become real issues. We now have a plan and at some stage in the next year or two we will replace the small car we bought in 2003 – we keep cars for a long time as a matter of policy – with an electric one and use it as much as possible.

But a new problem has arisen. Nearly all these new electric vehicles come with seats which are synthetic. Most use polyurethane coated synthetic fibres, but some also have synthetics in non-woven form, often promoted as microfibres. These materials are made of polymers from fossil-fuel based carbon that is thousands of years old, irreplaceable and creating damage in its use.
The automobile companies are promoting this change as being about climate change, animal welfare and healthier diets. They suggest the materials are environmentally friendly and animal free. It is one of the most dishonest positions I have observed throughout my career. There is no peer reviewed science that backs up such an argument.

Dishonest position

Two things appear to be the actual drivers here. One is that over the past few years, hide and skin prices have been volatile so profits can be increased and stabilised by shifting to plastics. Jon Clark, CEO of Prime Asia made this point very clearly in a post on LinkedIn when he appealed to hide dealers to stop pushing prices upwards when the long-term damage it will do is now so apparent. Second is that PETA appears to be doing an outstanding job lobbying in the sector. Egbert Dikkers of Leather Naturally argues correctly that the leather industry cannot take PETA with such a meagre budget compared to their tens of millions of dollars. Our still very fragmented industry contains so many voices who shout for others to deal with the challenge but will not commit financially and emotionally to protect the material their livelihoods depend upon. Considering the employment leather provides and the sustainability and environmental aspects it involves, governments and politicians need to get on side.

As we hear of hides being landfilled through lack of sale it is hard to understand why hide dealers are not working harder with partners to find ways to get them back into the leather trade.

The balance of power with the consumer seems to be sliding away from leather but it is not totally lost. The industry in general still thinks with a western mindset and yet the Asian consumer is increasingly important; and we know the Asian attitude to leather is less positive. There is a marked difference between an ethical consumer in the U.S. and Europe, never mind with Asia.

Replacing a sustainable material with the least seems inconceivable

The idea that an automobile designed to meet the issues of climate change, powered in a way that governments are supportive of to the extent of offering sizeable subsidies, should come to market replacing the demonstrably most sustainable material with the least seems inconceivable.

Will the outcome be that we will need to find companies willing to re-upholster plastic upholstery in leather while raw hides continue to be thrown away? It is certainly not business as normal after this pandemic.

Mike Redwood
June 15 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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