Text and photos by Aries B. Espinosa

THIS IS certainly a great week for meaningful birthdays. For one, it’s Velocity’s anniversary week. For another, I will be observing (yes, not “celebrating,” thanks a lot, social distancing tyrant Covid-19) my own birthday.

Speaking of birthdays, I’d like to think of it as commemorating being born into our one and only real skin. Yes, we clothe ourselves to augment or supplement our “birthday skin,” but nothing comes close to the comfort and protection our own hides provide us. We would not survive without our skin (and imagine how gross we’d look walking around with our insides showing).

Human skin, however, is quite vulnerable to the elements, and as such we have found it necessary to, well, “save our own skins” by using other materials. Primitive humans resorted to using the hide and fur of other animals. Then, with the rise of agriculture, garments were derived from plant fabrics.

Today, thanks to human ingenuity, we can don ourselves with an almost limitless variety of apparel and accessories made from whatever kind of material (yes, even from plastic bags).

Sadly, though, we haven’t completely discarded our stone-age ways, and have continued to use animal skins (leather, fur) for our clothes, and especially on car seats. Ironically, this vestige of primitive human life is considered “premium” or “luxury.”

It’s all in the perception, and the cycle of marketing, that perpetuates genuine animal leather as something that “adds prestige” to a car.

Would it still be considered prestigious if car marketers witnessed for themselves the cruel slaughter of 56 billion farm animals, year in and year out? Would we still caress genuine leather with fondness if we saw how, every year, more than a billion cows and bulls would face the unspeakable torture of being face-branded with hot irons, electrocuted, beaten and suffocated?

Would you still opt for leather that has been made with the cruelest of methods, even if you knew there were ways to create faux (or imitation) leather that looks and feels like the real thing?

Take, for example, the textile named Piñatex used for vehicle interiors. Piñatex is a natural leather alternative made from cellulose fibers extracted from pineapple leaves, PLA (polylactic acid), and petroleum-based resin, and used in the manufacture of bags, shoes, wallets, watch bands, and seat covers.

Suzuki Ertiga’s elegant seven-seater fabric seats

The Artico man-made leather or the MB-Tex seat upholstery is now used by Mercedes-Benz. Italian-made Alcantara leather, composed of about 68% polyester and 32% polyurethane, giving the appearance and tactile feel of suede, is now used in private jets and in European luxury cars such as Porsche, BMW M, and in the Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera and Lexus LC500h. Volvo uses its own synthetic fabric T-Tec upholstery.

In a BBC News report in December 2016, it was reported that Paul McCartney, a staunch vegan, purchased a Lexus kitted out with Alcantara.

Plantbasednews.org reported in March 2018 that the Toyota Prius hybrid uses SofTex, a synthetic fabric that mimics leather, and is also proven to be more breathable than its animal-based alternative. Meanwhile, the Tesla Model X offers a variant with alternative ultra-white synthetic leather seating.

It is heartening to see that many car manufacturers are now coming out with non-leather variants, particularly in their entry- to mid-level cars. Synthetic fabrics are truly more suited to our usually hot and humid climates, as these absorb and radiate less heat when exposed directly to the sun and under the hottest times of the day.

Using faux or synthetic leather is not only compassionate, it is also more environmentally sustainable. It eases the demand for more cattle to be raised and take up more real estate via grazing. Every second, a forested area the size of a football field is destroyed forever due to the global expansion of animal farms.

Owning and driving a cruelty-free car, however, entails more than just eliminating the genuine leather in your ride. There are other ways animal products can creep into the car. Tallow, also known as stearic acid, a hard, fatty substance made from rendered animal fat and commonly used in making candles and soap, is also used to toughen tires and tubing. Steel is coated with lubricants made from animal products.

Right now, it’s still virtually impossible to own a car that’s 100% free of animal products. But taking out the genuine leather component already takes out much of the cruelty involved in making one.

I’m just hoping that someday, our inventive and compassionate scientists and auto engineers may finally produce the synthetic products that could practically replace the stearic acid and lubricants sourced from animals. I do hear that Michelin already manufactures tires using plant-based stearic acid, so, hurray for that. I hope other tire makers follow suit.

I do believe in the innate goodness of people. Given the choice, we would rather not inflict harm upon others. The same should apply with the choice of car we own and drive. Getting around shouldn’t cost a voiceless, defenseless being unspeakable pain and, ultimately, its life. We let the horses and cows go free when we invented the horseless carriage. Why stab them in the back and drag them back for their hides, in an enlightened age when we wouldn’t even dare mistreat our beloved animal companions one bit?