Carbon fibre used to be the ultimate tell when it came to showing just how much money you could throw at your car’s interior. An expansive dash, custom-carved door panels, a $1,000 (around ₹7,000) steering wheel in that unmistakable black cross-hatch—and the Nappa leather seats that often pair with it—telegraphed to anyone who cared to look that this was an expensive, sporty and unique whip owned by someone who was possibly important, and at least interesting.
But now it’s the time of plants.
“Fifty years ago, a leather couch was the height of luxury," says Massimo Frascella, Land Rover’s creative director and a practising vegan. “Now in the best hotels and homes you would never see that. It’s a similar process with cars. Going forward, sustainable design is providing the framework for change."
Frascella arrived in Manhattan during the New York International Auto Show, which began on 19 April, to unveil Land Rover’s new line of leather-free and fully vegan materials developed to outfit its 2020 Range Rover Evoque, Range Rover Velar, and Jaguar I-Pace SUVs. “There are a growing number of people who are concerned with the provenance of the textiles and materials in their vehicle," he says. The new interiors are meant to attract consumers for whom the highest form of luxury aligns with their eco-beliefs.
The marque’s proprietary Eucalyptus Melange, for example—a textile produced from eucalyptus fibres—uses significantly less water than traditional materials such as plastic and Alcantara and can be dyed to match any colour. It also uses a durable wool blend, from textile firm Kvadrat, that feels like a soft wool sweater. Dinamica Suedecloth is a flameproof and extremely durable, suede-mimicking microfibre made from recycled plastic bottles—53 per vehicle, on average, according to Land Rover. Taken together, they provide a vegetarian, if not fully animal-product-free, option for the conscientious affluent.
Other carmakers are also adding eco-conscious options to interiors. Volvo has said at least 25% of the plastic-like surfaces in its vehicles will come from sustainable materials, as opposed to oil, by 2025. Toyota Motor Corp. makes seat cushion material that uses glycol from renewable sugar cane rather than glycol derived from petroleum. Hyundai Motor Co. sources ground-up volcanic rock to form the support pillar coverings for its sedans; Ford Motor Co. developed a seat foam from soybeans; and Faraday Future has toyed with using rock fibres and cotton from discarded garments to line its cars.
Luxury brands have intensified the allure. In the world of $250,000 SUVs and six-figure hybrids, it’s only fitting that the interiors are both plush and sustainable. In this arena, the medium is the message.
“This is part of a bigger global trend that we see continuing to grow," says Filip Brabec, Audi AG’s vice-president for product management. “It has to do with consumers understanding more and more the implications of how we inhabit the environment, and how and what we eat."
Synthetic leather alone will make up a $45 billion industry by 2025, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research, with automotive applications predicted to be the second-largest use for renewable textiles, after home furnishings. In this landscape, “responsibly sourced" and “premium alternatives" are the biggest buzzwords.
Audi has developed sustainable and even carbon-neutral materials for its electric vehicles. The seats of the Q4 e-tron SUV are made from recycled plastic, and the e-tron GT offers an interior option of synthetic leather and recycled microfibres, including a deep-pile Econyl yarn floor carpet made from used fishing nets. The entire car is vegan.
In its Aicon concept, Audi presented seat covers made from Climatex, a dual-layered fabric with a polyester top and pure wool bottom. It was developed so the two layers could be separated by type and recycled at the end of the vehicle’s life. Though it isn’t going into production, such solutions are indicative of the way Audi foresees the future of interiors.
That’s not to say there isn’t still plenty of business in the old-fashioned world of burled walnut and buckskin. Just ask the folks at Bentley.
But Land Rover is anticipating a larger change in consumer tastes. It’s introducing eco-conscious textiles in the Evoque, a model that, though not the company’s biggest seller, takes the lead in marketing Land Rover as an upscale, aspirational addition to the garage.
Better yet, Frascella says, the materials don’t carry an additional price premium over traditional textiles—unless you count the premium of the additional pleasure they give their Earth-minded users.