NOVI, MI – Some environmentally conscious car shoppers shun leather interiors, believing a material from cow hides is environmentally harmful.
People who think that get under the skin of Fernando Caccia, managing director of Bader Leather, a Rochester, MI, company that provides leather interiors to the auto industry.
He passionately argues why those people are wrong.
“We are living in an era of misinformation,” Caccia (pictured, below left) says during a panel discussion at the recent AutoTech: Detroit conference in suburban Detroit.
“Some people think that if they are buying a car with a leather interior, it’s hurting animals. But leather is a sustainable byproduct of meat. About 33 million cattle are processed for beef annually in the U.S. No animals are killed because of leather,” he says.
However, environmentalists and animal rights activists claim cattle ranching in areas such as Brazil contributes to deforestation and contributes to climate change – and selling leather makes ranching more profitable. Automakers such as Tesla, Rivian and others do not offer leather interiors for this reason.
But the way Caccia sees it, the hides of those animals can either be burned or put in landfills – or used to create one of humankind’s oldest, most sophisticated and most versatile products.
“We have a choice to throw it away or turn it into a beautiful material,” he says.
Accordingly, “We need to get the word out that leather is a sustainable product," he adds.
Steve Jeske of the Jeske Advisory Group concurs.
“Leather is the perfect recyclable product,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Caccia and Jeske are fellow panelists at a conference session entitled “Sustainability & the Future of Transportation” centering on the extent to which automakers and their supply chains support sustainability.
“The biggest challenge is the desire for recycled materials,” says panelist Marco Tonndorf, vice president-global supply for Auria, a supplier of automotive sound insulators, floor under-carpets, rear-decklid liners and other products.
A challenge for the industry is to both reduce supply costs and increase the use of sustainable materials, he says.
It’s important to evaluate the potential sustainability of every product “because we see consumers comparing them,” says panelist Katie Kutskill, technical director of the Sustainable Leather Foundation.
Sustainability standards vary from automaker to automaker. That makes it tough on suppliers striving for consistent production processes.
And it increases production costs, Jeske says. “If there were a (common) standard, it would help the industry immensely.”
He adds: “It is up to the OEMs to determine which materials can truly be recycled to other industries.”
Caccia calls leather one of those products. He passes out to session attendees seed-starting plant pots made from leather scraps. “They are completely biodegradable,” he says.
Panel moderator Rose Ryntz, an industry veteran, PhD polymer chemist and President of Ryntz & Associates, quips that leather “is a second life of a cow.”
Yet she notes the vinyl industry has come a long way in creating materials that look like leather. Caccia rebuts that vinyl doesn’t age as well as leather.
But vinyl costs less, which is why Ryntz predicts leather’s days are numbered as an automotive interior material.
“I think leather will ultimately leave because it’s too (comparatively) expensive," she tells Wards after the conference session. “But if it were a question of me not thinking leather is sustainable, I wouldn’t be wearing leather shoes today.”