HAMBURG, Germany – The automotive industry always has been a major consumer of textiles, but it is deepening links with specialist fabric companies, including those linked to fashion.
Polestar, the Sweden-based subsidiary of China’s Geely Holding Group, was a key supporting partner of the Global Fashion Summit held in June in Copenhagen, Denmark. The company wants to find new sustainable materials to make a car that leaves the factory gates with a zero-carbon footprint by 2030.
While the existing Polestar 2, a 5-door liftback electric vehicle meant to take the Tesla Model 3 head-on, comes with vegan (no leather or animal products in processing) textile seating, the Polestar 5, scheduled for launch in 2024, will have its seat coverings made in an innovative 3D-knitting process that avoids waste.
This system already is used in the fashion and footwear sector, for instance, to make products for major fashion brands such as Uniqlo and Adidas, Polestar says. The Polestar 5 seats’ material mix will include recycled plastic bottles, flax fibers and recycled natural corks from the wine industry.
The company also is looking to boost sustainability for interiors using animal products: “Although only 5% to 10% of our customers choose leather, we are working at making leather more sustainable and obtaining it only from certified sources as a waste product of the meat industry,” a Polestar spokeswoman tells Wards.
She says the company uses a chromium-free production method utilizing natural sources of probiotics, enzymes and plant-based polymers as well as plant-based and synthetic tanning agents. “Grass feeding and regenerative farming practices are used in the entire supply chain,” she adds.
U.K.-based luxury marque Lotus, which also is Geely-owned, in 2023 will launch its Lotus Eletre, a luxury battery-electric CUV that will integrate an advanced wool-blend fabric on its seats (pictured, above) that are 50% lighter than traditional leather, allowing for further weight savings. German carmaker Audi, for its part, uses recycled plastic bottles ground into polyester yarn constituting 89% of its fourth-generation A3 car seat material.
Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor at the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, notes: “Volvo, Tesla, BMW, Audi and the likes are all turning away from leather seats, reflecting that the circular economy theme is becoming more prominent in their marketing concepts.”
He calls Mercedes (pictured, below) “the notable exception,” saying, “It is not sustainable to waste the skins of cows after slaughtering for meat production.” A Mercedes spokesperson replies: “From next year we will gradually shift to only using sustainably produced and processed leather for all of our models. This involves everything, from cattle breeding to tanning.” The company requires that its entire leather supply chain is untainted by illegal deforestation and any natural forests cannot be cleared for land grazed by Mercedes leather-producing cattle.
Tanning agents must be vegan or substances that are completely chromium-free, such as being sourced from dried coffee beans or chestnuts. Mercedes also is researching vegan alternatives for real leather, for instance using renewable raw materials such as pulverized cactus fiber or fungus mycelium (the root-like structure of a fungus).
Downplaying the widespread notion that China, as a key auto market not known for putting sustainability over glamor and comfort, will never embrace vegan car seats at the expense of leather, Dudenhoeffer says the impact of Tesla as a key opinion leader in China probably will make younger Chinese drivers more receptive to the green shift.
“(China President) Xi Jinping might prefer leather, but if the boss of ‘Automaker X’ prefers vegan, it will be interesting to witness what direction the Chinese consumer trend will take,” says Dudenhoeffer.
On the R&D front, in Taiwan, the government-funded Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI) is developing long-term thermal control water-based leathers with temperature-reactive phase change material (PCM) materials and water-based microencapsulation technology. These innovative materials have been widely used in home furnishing products, but a small batch trial production for car seats by the institute is under way.
The PCM materials wrapped with microcapsules are highly thermally conductive and can be easily added to leather coatings. The technology absorbs external heat and converts it into phase transition energy, maintaining leather temperatures at between 27°C to 31°C (80.6°F to 87.8°F) for significantly more time when in sunlight, than with untreated leathers. The microcapsule shells are composed of solvent-free waterborne polyurethane resin, which has no volatile organic compounds, heavy metals or formaldehyde.
“The more PCM is added to the leather, the better the thermal buffering effect will be,” Lin Po-Ju, TTRI applied materials section chief and Huang Chung-Mou, TTRI associate engineer, tell Wards. “The leather can be designed with different thicknesses, embossing and softness and is especially suitable for long drives for all types of RVs, commercial vehicles and EVs.”