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Perspective: The virtue-signaling of Volvo’s removal of leather

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Volvo hopes that removing leather from some vehicles will make it more sustainable, but it doesn’t seem to know much about how agriculture works


I like having leather seats in my vehicle. They’re easy to clean (very helpful when your large dog with muddy paws gets inside). They’re comfortable. And they look good. Plus there’s nothing quite as nice as heating those leather seats on a cold winter morning in northern Indiana.

So I took notice when Volvo recently announced a major change to future lines of its electric vehicles. By 2030, the automaker hopes to replace all of its interior leather in those vehicles (starting with the C40 Recharge) with so-called vegan leather. Volvo claims it’s responding to consumers’ concerns over animal welfare and the impact animal agriculture has on the environment.

Most of us have probably encountered “pleather” in fashion, especially cheap fashion. Now I’m not an expert on leather and it’s alternatives, but according to Harper’s Bazaar, not all fake leather is created equal. Most are made from plastic derivatives (hence the name pleather = plastic leather) and aren’t biodegradable; so they live agonizingly long lives in our landfills. There’s also the problem of the microplastics from these products shedding, which can cause human health issues. And a lot of them end up in our oceans.

Aside from pleather, there are some higher-quality vegan leathers. These come from polyurethane or plant-based materials, like apple peels and corks. Volvo is calling its version Nordico, which is composed of textiles from recycled wine corks and recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles, among other materials. Better vegan leather is supposed to last longer than its cheaper alternatives, and it doesn’t rip or tear as easily. That’s probably an important point if you’re going to have faux leather in your luxury vehicle.

But aside from quality, Volvo’s newfound concerns about the environment and animal welfare ring hollow for me. And this vegan leather screams of virtue signaling.

Let’s not forget that Volvo makes automobiles, and while the vegan leather switch is aimed at the brand’s electric vehicles, most of Volvo’s fleet still runs on gasoline. Gasoline that releases greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. If climate change is the biggest environmental threat we face, then I don’t need a car company telling me animal agriculture is the problem. (Remember when BP did something similar?)

Transportation and electricity are, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the biggest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions. Volvo is making some electric cars now, with the power grid’s role in climate change, that isn’t going to solve the bigger problem either. So, they try to put the focus (and blame) on animal agriculture instead …

In defense of leather, one nonprofit association even described Volvo’s approach as lacking an understanding of the methane cycle and a failure to realize how the cattle industry is pushing to become carbon neutral in the coming decade.

“Cows emit methane, a strong greenhouse gas,” Leather Naturally said. “But this methane is part of a natural carbon cycle, where the methane breaks down into CO2 and water after about 12 years. The grass then absorbs the CO2 through photosynthesis, cows eat the grass, and the cycle continues. Conversely, CO2 from burning fossil fuel stays in the atmosphere for potentially 1,000 years.”

And when it comes to animal welfare, I don’t even want to hear about it. Farm animals have dedicated caretakers, regular veterinarian care, and comfortable lives. You don’t work with these animals for a living unless you have a passion for it. While there are certainly bad actors in every profession, animal abusers are by far the exception, not the rule (much like the Ford Pinto is to the automobile industry).

With all of that being said, I don’t think Volvo’s goals will have a huge impact on animal agriculture. I also don’t think faux leather will be the end of the rodeo either. Animal byproducts aren’t going anywhere. There’s plenty of room for everyone on the marketplace.

But animal agriculture should be worried. As I stated before, anti-animal agriculture is now mainstream. It’s no longer relegated to the fringe of society, like crazy PETA activists smearing blood all over the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace. Regular people now buy into the idea that meat equals bad. If that wasn’t true, Volvo wouldn’t be announcing this switch to vegan leather by 2030.

It’s a tough spot to be in. The only solution is the slow, steady process of having conversations with people, building bridges, and restoring trust. There are so many amazing social media influencers sharing their stories right now (a big change from when I first started writing!). We need to support and encourage their work.

 

Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.

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