Sustainability concerns are leading some automakers to switch from leather upholstery to synthetic alternatives. So a group of leather suppliers are making their case.

The trade group, called One 4 Leather, claims that leather upholstery made from cow hides has a lower carbon footprint than synthetic materials. That’s in part because, the argument goes, cattle are already being reared to produce milk and are then slaughtered for meat, so use of hides for leather constitutes up-cycling of material that would otherwise be wasted.

That’s based on an assumption that cattle farming will continue at its current scale, even though it also produces carbon emissions. While One 4 Leather acknowledges that cattle rearing represents 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it also downplays one of the main emissions of that industry—the greenhouse gas methane, “a short-lived gas.”

2024 Lincoln Navigator

The group, which includes Bridge of Weir, supplier of leather to Lucid and many other luxury automakers, also argues that real leather is more likely to last the lifetime of a car and requires less cleaning. This saves material and potential environmental contamination from cleaning products, the group says.

But the leather industry itself has lots of environmental issues attached to it. Whatever products are derived from them, cattle require “huge amounts of feed, pastureland, and fossil fuels” to raise, animal rights group PETA notes in a statement on the “Environmental Hazards of Leather.” Excrement from factory farms are a potential contaminant, as are the chemicals used in the tanning industry, the group notes.

Automakers have started moving away from leather for multiple reasons. Tesla started offering a synthetic alternative years ago after pressure from fans. More recently, Volvo has announced plans to go leather-free in all of its EVs by 2030, while Kia plans to phase out leather at some indeterminate point. Sustainability is the stated reason for those automakers.

2024 Volvo XC40 Recharge

2024 Volvo XC40 Recharge

Claims about the relative carbon footprint of leather versus synthetic upholstery must be further analyzed, but the leather industry might have a point about the source of its wares. Eating less beef and drinking less milk—and thus lessening the need for massive factory farms—could help reduce global carbon emissions.

In the interim, there may be other uses of those beef by-products, such as using it to make biodiesel.

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