Audi says consumers are now more willing to accept defects in leather for car interiors as the drive for authenticity gains momentum at least in Western countries.
For many years the slightest imperfection caused by cow hides being scratched or imperfect due to animals roaming freely and coming into contact with external elements has been viewed as a reason not to include the affected leather in vehicles, but it appears this attitude is changing.
The customer wish to experience leather – weathered or not by contact with the real world – joins a host of other sectors where authenticity is key enjoying a resurgence such as vinyl record purchasing as opposed to digital recordings and a boom in craft beer compared to mass-produced brands.
“Customers have got used to almost flawless materials – almost no insect bites – everything had to be taken out,” said Audi material development, leather, Henning Gathmann at last week’s (20 April) Automotive Leather Event at cutting machine supplier, Lectra ‘s Bordeaux headquarters in South West France.
“Nowadays the consumer wants it [slight defects] – we can highlight it is a natural material and consumers should get used to it again. We should really highlight this is a natural material. This is a question not only for the automotive industry – it is a question for the entire leather industry.
“Consumers have to be [told] the material is not bad because it has a scar – a right scar in the right place is quite sexy. We have to educate the entire supply chain.”
Interestingly, despite a common perception noting most consumers viewed the smell of leather in a new car as appealing, Gathmann maintained some cultures preferred to have a “neutral” odour in the car.
“We have a so-called nose team,” added Gathmann. “They smell samples from our suppliers on a regular basis.”
Despite some ways of producing leather having in some cases historically negative associations with a few consumers in terms of environmental implications, the Audi material development spokesman noted many car buyers were turning to leather as an example of sustainability.
“Consumers nowadays are very well informed and plenty of them follow a healthy lifestyle of health and sustainability,” added Gathmann. “They want products which are sustainable and they are willing to pay more for them.
“Do most customers know about the production of leather? They know there is a cow, there is a tanning agent. Tanning agents can be a really good way to tell a story about innovation.
“How do we inform customers? We need a joint effort from industry, to push innovations. Most customers think leather factories pollute rivers, the entire waste is going to rivers. Here we have possibilities to change [perception].”
Key to that message is underlining the use of tanning agents, but also fatliqours and auxiliaries, as well as effluent improvement using a reduction in total dissolved solids, less sulphur and yield improvement.
“Throwing leather away is not sustainable at all,” said Gathmann. “[The] most effective way to be more sustainable [is] to increase the yield.
“[You can] increase hide utilisation [by] improvement on hide structure, grain correction [and] avoiding lamination of the leather.”
Since 1997, Audi has only been using chromefree leathers in its interiors.