Every element of car production must be as sustainable as possible.
Last year, Mini's chief design officer Oliver Heilmer announced that the brand no longer needs leather. Why? "Because we don't believe it's sustainable," said the executive. The entire industry is frantically working to reduce carbon emissions, and that means taking advantage of every little opportunity to make products more sustainable.
It's similar to how a Koenigsegg can be made lighter by shaving grams and milligrams of weight throughout the car. Sure, a carbon fiber body goes a long way, but titanium screws also have an impact. It's the same story with sustainable materials. Sure, an electric powertrain can be cleaner than an internal combustion engine, but fitting your vehicles with sustainable materials can be just as impactful in the fight against environmental destruction.
Thus, the BMW Group has announced that it will offer "fully vegan interiors" for both BMW and Mini models for the first time from 2023, thereby reducing CO2 emissions over the entire life cycle of a vehicle as the automaker fights for climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest.
The BMW Group says that this will be made possible "primarily through the development of innovative materials with leather-like properties." These materials will be suitable for steering wheel upholstery, which BMW notes must feel good, look premium, and sustain years of wear.
"With a steering wheel made from a high-quality vegan surface material, we are fulfilling the wishes of our customers who do not want to make any compromises in terms of look, feel, and functionality. The innovative material withstands wear and tear caused by abrasion, perspiration, and moisture and has all the desirable properties of leather," says Uwe Kohler, Head of Development Body, Exterior Trim, Interior at the BMW Group.
According to the German manufacturer, the only noticeable difference in these new steering wheels will be a new grain effect on the rim.
And don't think that the implementation of so-called vegan materials barely makes a difference - the new steering wheel material drops CO2 emissions along the value chain by around 85% compared to leather. That's because, so far, "most of the emissions produced, around 80%, were in the form of methane gas from cattle rearing," with the remaining 20% generated by the processing of the cowhide, which BMW notes is heavy on both energy and water use.
Of course, it's not just steering wheels that are getting cleaner. By using only one material for the floor mats of various cars, rather than difficult-to-recycle material mixes, the BMW Group reports savings of 23,000 metric tons (over 50.7 million pounds) of CO2 and 1,600 metric tons (around 3.5 million lbs) of waste every year because these recycled floor mats and that waste material are both reused in the production of new items.
BMW isn't stopping there and is working with various startups to develop new bio-based materials. Compared to synthetic leathers that the group used to use, emissions are now approximately 45% lower. Among these new materials are Mirum, a 100% bio-based and petroleum-free leather replica, and Deserttex, which is made from pulverized cactus fibers with a bio-based polyurethane matrix.
BMW's push for more sustainable materials is already evident in its 2023 model updates; the BMW X5 and X6 are no longer available with Vernasca leather and come with Sensafin vegan upholstery as standard.
We only hope that BMW isn't exaggerating its claims of quality. Tesla owners with vegan upholstery have seen bubbling issues on seats and degradation of steering yoke surfaces. Either way, one section of the BMW Group won't be going quite so green: Rolls-Royce. Why? Because its customers have never asked for anything but the finest leather. As long as that's the case, you and I can still enjoy a triple cheeseburger.