European cars risk running out of leather for their seats

The deadline for when companies need to ensure their leather interiors are deforestation-free is getting closer. By late 2024, time will have run out for the sector, which shows little sign of progress.

COWS: Brazilian cows being transported to the slaughterhouse. Photo: Victor moriyama/RFN

By Jose de Melo.

In December 2022, the European Union passed its first Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) placing due diligence requirements on the deforestation-free and legal nature of several products placed on EU markets. By 2024, this will also include leather. Half of the leather that Europe imports from Brazil is used for luxurious car interiors. As leather derives from cow hides and cattle ranching is linked to an alarming 80 per cent of Amazon deforestation, European cars are at a high risk of driving deforestation

Six months have passed since the EUDR regulation was announced, and the automotive industry has shown a concerning disregard for the deforestation risks hanging over the sector. Or at least, their attitude suggests as much.

Lack of response from the automotive sector

This spring we contacted 15 automotive companies and asked for their updated policies and practices to ensure the deforestation-free nature of their cars’ leather interiors. The response rate has been disappointedly low; so far, only a few companies have replied. Among the ones that have replied are BMW, Toyota and Adient. Big names such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford have remained silent. This does not signal a serious commitment to deforestation mitigation on their part.

DEFORESTATION: Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Victor Moriyama/RFN

Leather consumption is driving deforestation

One reason why the automotive sector lags behind in terms of deforestation mitigation could be that leather has not been given the same amount of attention when it comes to deforestation risks as compared to other commodities such as soy and palm oil. This is largely due to the misleading narrative that leather is a waste product of the beef industry, and therefore the industry does not directly cause deforestation. In fact, this narrative has been used by leather lobbyists in Europe to remove leather from the upcoming EU Deforestation Regulation.

In February 2023, RFN launched a study that largely debunked this disinformation. Leather sales can be crucial for the profit margins of slaughterhouses, and in 2021 alone, the leather goods market was valued at more than 700 billion USD. These pieces of evidence are sufficient to hold the leather sector accountable for its links to deforestation.

What will happen?

Some car manufacturing companies have signaled that they are working towards replacing animal leather with alternatives. However, they generally lack a sustainability risk analysis for these alternatives, which to a large extent are made of plastic, with other environmental costs linked to its production.

Another signal from the sector is that they aim to phase out leather from high deforestation-risk areas.

Rainforest Foundation Norway is now trying to gather information to provide a comprehensive overview of how companies will demonstrate compliance with the EUDR.

The unresponsiveness from the car industry might as well just imply that they have not invested enough effort in supply chain mapping and alternative strategies to secure the deforestation-free nature of their leather sourcing. The risk of Europe running out of leather for its car manufacturing is technically possible, as the deadline for when companies need to ensure their leather interiors are deforestation-free is getting closer. By late 2024, time will have run out for the sector.

While we wait for the automotive companies to get their act together, the Amazon rainforest is on the verge of a tipping point beyond which the ecosystem risks collapse. European consumers must face their responsibilities by demanding zero-deforestation policies from automotive companies and extend the lifespan of our cars. Together, we have a chance to prevent a catastrophic tipping point, and protect this invaluable ecosystem.

José de Melo

Senior Cattle Supply Chain Adviser, Deforestation-free Markets
(+47) 406 15 292