How I was fooled by synthetic leather

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Leather Naturally Chair, Egbert Dikkers thought he was making a sustainable choice when he opted for an electric car with leather interior. So why was his car delivered with plastic seats? 

How I was fooled with synthetic leather

In the first week of January this year, 2019, I went to the car dealer to pick up my new car. I deliberately chose for an electric car with a reasonable cruising range of approximately 250-280 real kilometres to support the move towards less CO2 emissions. Working for Smit & zoon, a 7th generation family business with a core focus to make the leather industry more sustainable, it is logical that I wanted leather in my car. What should have been a nice moment, turned out to be an initial disappointment because my car was delivered with plastic instead of leather.  

Please read my personal story. 

When I ordered the car in May 2018 (electric cars are popular in the Netherlands with many months waiting time till delivery as a consequence) I chose for a standard OEM package with a combination of leather and textile as I did not like the alternative combination of leather and alcantara. In the brochure I received at the time of purchasing, the upholstery was nicely described as leather/eco textile and also described this way in the initial price offer. 
When I arrived at the car dealer last week, the car was wrapped under a red sheet as a surprise. Regretfully the surprise was that the seats where covered with plastic and textile. Instead of a nice full handle with touch and warmth, I felt a thin sheet with no touch, no character at all. I was fooled with plastic!

When I asked the dealer why he did not put leather in but plastic, he reacted with astonishment. But Sir, this is what you ordered. This is synthetic leather! I was flabbergasted and explained to him the difference between leather and synthetic material and the fact that I would never have chosen for a non sustainable material like plastic. And asked him why he was wrong in how he labelled leather at the time I bought the car?

Today I checked the website of the OEM again and noticed that they do write ‘synthetic leather’ now. It seems they learned, although still I would argue that they should put a different name for ‘synthetic leather’ and be open that this material is plastic. It is now up to me to solve this situation with the dealer and or via the aftermarket. Also in the aftermarket, I notice that mostly ‘eco leathers’ are offered, which is nothing else than plastic, promoted as an eco alternative for leather. It is rather challenging to get leather at all!

Many people including myself choose for leather because of the unique characteristics and the fact that it is long lasting, repairable and in the case of car leather, easy to clean. If this ‘fooling’ can happen to me, it might happen to you as well? If so, I am interested to hear your story. 

One of the risks we face as an industry is that consumers think they buy leather, later on experience that the product does not offer the characteristics they expect from leather and as a result loose their confidence in leather and stop buying the next time. This is what is happening in shoes, in upholstery, in bags and in automotive for several years already. Slowly, slowly leather is substituted by plastic, deteriorating our oceans.  

I write this blog, because this is just another wake up call for me personally and for the leather industry. Are we going to relax, sit back and enjoy the free ride on plastic chairs? Or are we going to stand up, be proud and bold about leather, unite, support and fund initiatives like Leather Naturally, their intended promotion campaign and other alternatives and organisations focussing on regulations (like Cotance) and many others that promote and protect leather and the unique characteristics? Furthermore, it remains a challenge to our industry to develop, produce and market leather as a luxury product with strong benefits. I also experienced that we as people working in the leather industry have an own responsibility and great opportunity in educating people we see and meet in industries that sell plastic and take a free ride on the image of leather. 

What more proof is needed to realize that we need to collaborate to develop, produce and promote leather as a unique material?

Egbert Dikkers

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