For many sports car fans, leather seats are synonymous with luxury. That’s why Tesla made waves in 2019 when founder Elon Musk announced that, going forward, all Tesla interiors would be free of animal products and made from cloth or vegan leather instead.
Since then, every Tesla’s interior has been retrofitted to be free of animal products. But what does that mean from a quality standpoint? And is vegan leather actually better for the environment? Here’s an exploration of what you’ll really sit on when you travel in a Tesla.
Vegan Leather and Tesla: A History
In its early days, many Tesla models came standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and seats. But by 2017, synthetic seats became available upon request, and the vehicles ditched the steering wheel cover for 100% vegan interiors by 2019.
This transition is, in part, the work of PETA. The animal rights organization has been pushing for premium fake leather in vehicles since 2015. But even so, Tesla had motivation beyond PETA to move towards synthetic leather. This new material is as much as 30% lighter than animal hides, putting less pressure on the EV’s battery and consequently extending its driving range.
Is Vegan Leather Eco-Friendly?
The term “vegan leather” can be a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the material is usually a fancy word for plastic. Most non-animal leathers are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). In recent years, strides have been made to create natural vegan leathers from algae, fruit peels, bark, pineapple leaves, mushrooms, and other biodegradable materials.
At first glance, vegan leather sounds like a win for the environment. After all, we all know the devastation that raising animals for meat causes the planet. But is it really?
Cattle farming can be linked to close to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, along with rampant deforestation and pollution problems. Unfortunately, plastic-derived vegan leather (pleather) doesn’t have much to make it superior.
Most plastic leather is petroleum based and incapable of biodegrading. And when it does break down, it might release harmful phthalates and microplastics into the soil and water systems.
Tesla Vegan Leather Durability
Pleather also won’t last as long as real leather. When genuine leather gets worn, it develops a patina that shows character and doesn’t compromise its functionality. You can moisturize and polish animal leather products to restore their sheen and keep them in like-new condition. Pleather, in contrast, will degrade instead of developing a patina. It’s prone to cracking and peeling, making items look more worn than they are fast.
Likewise, real leather is a by-product of the livestock industry, meaning that it’s a material that might otherwise be wasted. So while the world still demands beef, it makes sense to use as much of the animal as possible and utilize the leather.
That’s not to say vegan leather options aren’t improving. Companies that manufacture automotive interiors like Ultrafabrics continue to experiment with natural materials and claim its vegan leather production process generates less than 25% of the carbon dioxide as traditional methods.
Tesla’s Vegan Leather Proves a Disappointment (At First)
When Tesla announced it was moving away from leather interiors, the news felt like a win for animal and car lovers alike. Unfortunately, reality has proven the move was less beneficial than first thought.
See also: How much does it cost to charge a Tesla?
Making the switch from animal to vegan leather isn’t simple. It can be a challenge to create materials that wear as well as natural leather while still giving off a sense of luxury. Steering wheels especially need to be hardy. They come into constant contact with all the oil and sweat on human hands, and they can look worse for wear fast without the right surface treatments. Likewise, Tesla struggled to find a material that could withstand heating.
After only a few weeks of use, Tesla’s “leather” seats started to swell and bubble on the surface. The headrest seemed especially vulnerable—proving that the oils and hair products from passengers were to blame.
Tesla Vegan Leather and Warm Temperatures
This damage is due to the vegan polyurethane resin on the seats. Extended contact with certain chemicals in hot temperatures can cause the seals to swell, which overwhelms the adhesive holding the resin to the seats and forms a bubble over the material.
See also: Tesla Model 3 Review
When irate Tesla owner Gister99 logged a complaint about their deteriorating interior, Tesla responded that the seat material could react poorly with ‘anything from lotions, sunscreen, hair sprays or gels, hand sanitizers, e-cigarette or vape pen liquid, cleaning products, swimming pool chlorine.’ Consequently, the damage was not a manufacturing defect or covered under warranty.
That left many Tesla owners in a tricky situation where sitting in their vehicle with oily skin or while using hair products could cause irreversible damage—a reality for almost everyone who drives. Even taking it to the beach could be a problem.
The good news is that Tesla’s manual provides clear instructions for cleaning the interior. A gentle wipe-down after driving with safe solvents can all but eliminate the risk of damage.
New Tesla Interiors—A Significant Improvement
Tesla has continuously improved its interiors with every new model, and claims of bubbling material have all but died down since the initial outcry.
While the company still isn’t completely transparent about its vegan leather supplier, one known partnership is with von Holzhausen, a luxury textile company that created a bamboo-based sustainable leather alternative called Banbū. It’s currently available in the Tesla Model S, Model Y, and Model 3, with plans for use in the Cybertruck and Roadster.
Bamboo itself is one of the fastest-growing renewable materials on the planet today. Banbū is 83 percent plant-based and designed to break down in a landfill within 250 days. The company describes its new vegan leather as “buttery-soft” and similar to lambskin. It’s five times lighter than cow leather, scratch-resistant, stain resistant, and water-resistant, making it ready to take on the rigors of a messy life.
The best way to care for Banbū is to prevent dirt from accumulating. This means wiping up spills as soon as they happen and cleaning the area with a gentle soap.
Tesla’s Interiors: Not Real Leather, But a Solid (and Increasingly Sustainable) Alternative
To summarize, EV manufacturer Tesla has made a stand for the environment by pulling animal leather from its cars and investing in natural, biodegradable alternatives instead. The company has faced some missteps with the material’s quality and durability but is seemingly on a better path for offering a luxury experience that’s leather-free.
If you want to experience Tesla’s leather-like interior without committing to a car, consider investing in the brand’s vegan leather backpack. For under $250, you get a bag styled after a sports car with plenty of storage and a premium vegan leather exterior. A mini pack is also available for $185.