While the fossil fuel-powered combustible engine will forever be linked to horsepower, the competition for the most environmentally friendly electric vehicle could be determined by another farm animal — the cow.
Skeptical? You shouldn't be. As the race for vehicle and fleet electrification intensifies, automakers battling to roll out the most environmentally friendly vehicles should look no further than their EV interiors. Ironically, for upholstery, the industry is widely using polyvinyl chloride, better known as vinyl, that is derived from fossil fuels.
For an EV industry built for the purpose of reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse emissions, supporting the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries is problematic and counterproductive — and potentially toxic to its branding.
What's worse is that many environmentally conscious consumers are opting for synthetic plastic substitutes that sound earth-friendly but have the opposite effect. "Vegan leather," for instance, sends a message that this particular leather substitute is a responsible option, when it actually expands the same carbon footprint that purchasing an EV is intended to curb.
Understanding the impact of these synthetics requires accounting for the entire process from oil extraction through the finished plastic product to what happens when its life cycle ends in disposal, including shedding plastic microparticles. All too often that full impact is not properly attributed to vehicle interiors despite the fact that they are produced by some of the highest CO2-producing industries.
Altogether, drilling offshore and on land generates more than 100 million metric tons of CO2 in the U.S. alone, while oil refining output of 3.18 billion barrels generates 176 million metric tons of CO2. The petrochemical industry also accounts for more than 1 trillion tons of CO2 per year. That's hardly something those who purchase EVs intend to sustain.
Consumers should be aware that selecting vinyl and plastic interiors will send perfectly usable cattle hides to landfills where they will decay and release additional greenhouse gases. It's the worst possible environmental outcome in terms of vehicle interiors and CO2, and it does not need to occur because a natural solution exists through the option of leather.