Just over two years ago, Elon Musk made a promise to animal rights associations: no more leather for Tesla interiors.

The American visionary has kept his word and, starting with model 3, its cars’ interior has been made of what is improperly called synthetic eco-leather, or – to use a popular term – ‘vegan leather’ (all incorrect terms as the word ‘leather’ should only refer to products derived from animal remains).

It would seem to be a fairy tale with a happy ending that pleases everyone, from the most convinced animal rights activists to the lovers of luxury cars, except for one small detail: the new “leather” has already started to deteriorate.

During the last few weeks, some quite impressive photos have been posted on the web, showing Tesla seats covered with bubbles. Swelled surfaces that are impossible not to notice. The Hog Ring magazine was the first to announce it in an article, and the news quickly spread online.

But how could this happen? After all, the Tesla interior was designed by Ganni, a Danish brand well known to fashion and design enthusiasts, and definitely not a newbie to the industry.

So what has led to this epic fail of the much-vaunted “sustainable” luxury of “vegan leather”?

Synthetic eco-leather: is it the real innovation? (And above all: is it really “eco”?)

Since Tesla’s announcement two years ago, other luxury car manufacturers have also started to think about replacing leather in their car interiors, from seats and headrests to dashboards and side pockets. As with shoes, handbags and clothing, the search for sustainable – but still high-quality – materials has not stopped, even with the pandemic.

Almost a month ago, BMW announced that it was considering a vegan material for its car interiors. Its name is Deserttex, it’s made from cactus leaves and it looks like it will replace animal-derived materials in some of BMW’s models. This decision, also taken by Audi in the past, should lead BMW to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40% by 2030.

But it’s not just about improving air quality or protecting animals: the Alcantara on some Land Rovers has been replaced by Eucalyptus Melange fabric – a material made from eucalyptus and polyester fibres – which has been described as more sustainable due to the lower amount of water and raw materials used in the production process.

And that’s not all: in 2021, Volvo has also announced that it wants to follow the same path, presenting the first “leather-free” car.

There is often a curious principle behind these decisions: a modern, environmentally friendly car should reduce emissions as much as possible. But, according to certain environmental rhetoric, CO2 pollution is not only caused by cars but also by intensive livestock farming. Turning our backs on real leather, a by-product of the livestock industry should therefore be a way of strengthening the carmaker’s declaration of intent to build greener vehicles.

So it’s supposed to be.

The “vegan leather” for cars was a preannounced fiasco

The manufacturers’ intentions are noble: adopting more sustainable materials that use fewer resources is certainly one way to go about preserving the health of our planet.

But we forget the basic characteristics that the materials used to make car interiors must have: strength and durability.

The first complaints about “bubbles” on Tesla seats come from the Tesla Motors Club blog, where several users have posted photos showing bulges of the “vegan” material on headrests and seats.

The manufacturer promptly denied any kind of guarantee, declaring that this type of material should be treated with care, avoiding rubbing and contact with products such as hairspray, sunscreen, hand sanitiser, chlorine, and cleaning products.

But let’s face it: car interiors have to be ready for this. If what Tesla said was true, people who own one of their cars wouldn’t be able to get into their car after a swim in the pool, nor would they be able to disinfect their hands after going to the mall. These rules are too restrictive, especially during these times and for people who drive their cars every day to work, pick up their children from school or go on holiday. In other words, for all those who make real use of it, not just showing it off on Sundays.

Whether it’s a bag, a pair of shoes, or a car seat, the material must be able to meet the requirements of sustainability and durability.

But is there a material that can be elegant, sustainable, and at the same time, durable?

Yes: it’s vegetable-tanned leather with tannin.

Vegetable tanned leather with tannin: old-fashioned charm and material quality

While some people are looking for something “new”, a material that meets everyone’s expectations, others have the solution in their pocket: vegetable tanning with tannin.

But why is it that tanned leather is more suitable for practical use than the new “vegan” materials that are so much in vogue today?

Durability: vegetable-tanned leathers are perfect for car interiors because they are treated to resist the wear and tear of everyday activities, taking on traits and nuances of our lives.

Sustainability: the production processes of vegetable-tanned leathers have a very low environmental impact. Using tannins instead of chemicals, for example, means having the possibility to reuse waste materials as fertiliser for organic farming.

Uniqueness: it is the tannins that make a tanned leather so special, so immediately distinctive from other types of leather.

Circular economy: contrary to popular belief, no animals are deliberately killed for the purpose of making clothes, shoes, or car interiors. The hides and skins used for vegetable tanning with tannin come from the food industry. If they were not used in this type of process, these hides would have to be disposed of, with a significant impact on the environment. Tannin extraction also promotes the local economy in the countries where the biomass is collected, contributing to the development and protection of the territory.

The OEM demand for more and more natural and sustainable materials has led tanneries to adopt the vegetable tanning system, adapting it to the high-performance automotive sector.

Going back to these ancient traditions does not mean rejecting progress, but rather becoming aware that the processes and tools of the past are still able to offer us solutions that are undoubtedly modern and innovative, able to satisfy the needs of the 2.0 consumer while protecting the environment.

Perhaps, instead of turning hastily to innovative but still somewhat immature materials, it would be better to communicate to consumers the advantages of vegetable-tanned leather with tannin, also from an environmental point of view.