Can fake leather truly beat real leather? It certainly does for some prestige car owners!

High net worth individuals typically like to live the good life. They stay in the most exclusive hotels, dine in the most expensive restaurants and buy the most luxurious cars. Most of us would make a safe assumption of their vehicle interiors only comprising of the supplest animal leather that will be pillow soft, smell absolutely sublime and showcase a diverse range of colours that will only look better with the passage of time. While leather is more expensive than fabric, it would hardly matter to these lucky few individuals with a high disposable income. So what can explain a recent trend of opting for fake leather that is even seen in ultra-luxury and luxury automobiles? This is primarily due to customer refusal to purchase any vehicle with cowhide upholstery and interiors – a direct impact of animal welfare concerns. Imitation leather began life as a cheaper substitute to animal hide, but it is now being adopted by customers from all walks of life, especially those who consider themselves to be more environmentally conscious. There is a great demand for non-leather materials in cars sold to vegan customers, particularly in Western countries.

A few luxury carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus have used imitation leather in some of their car models that are mostly at the lower end of the price spectrum. Mercedes-Benz has not seen a massive increase in clients requesting for a leather-free vehicle, but it has begun to study the idea should there be future demand. While all Audi vehicles have some real leather trim in their model line-up, they still provide the option for those customers who wish to opt out of using animal leather.

Not all carmakers are willing to bite the leather-free bullet just yet, though. Some companies still like to emphasise the richness and quality of their automotive interior leather. In recent times, synthetic leather has improved a lot in quality and it is very difficult for all but the most discerning of customers to tell the difference between leather and leatherette i.e. the synthetic equivalent of leather. Customer surveys seem to show that leather and leatherette have a very similar look, feel and durability and customers cannot notice the difference except in a few cases. This is immensely beneficial to automotive manufacturers, as the cost of synthetic leather is substantially lower than real leather. These cost benefits can easily be passed on to the customers, who can save a great deal of money without compromising much on either the quality or luxury of leather.

However, there are certain disadvantages of using leatherette as well. Leather is a by-product of the meat industry and is 100% natural. Leatherette is largely created with the help of petrochemicals and is not particularly environment friendly. In addition, fake leather reduces the overall resale value of the vehicle and feels somewhat rubbery and sticky in the summer, especially in tropical and sub-tropical countries. A few prestige conscious owners may even refuse to purchase such vehicles as they may only want the ‘real deal’. However, the benefits of leatherette far outweigh the disadvantages and it is only a matter of time before it gains popularity with the masses.

Nikhil Kaitwade

With over 8 years of experience in market research and consulting industry, Nikhil has worked on more than 250 research assignments pertaining to chemicals, materials and energy sector. He has worked directly with about 35 reputed companies as lead consultant for plant expansion, product positioning, capacity factor analysis, new market/segment exploration, export market opportunity evaluation and sourcing strategies.