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Overview: 2022 Wards Automotive Interiors & UX Conference

Overview: 2022 Wards Automotive Interiors & UX Conference

June 30, 2022

The Wards Automotive Interiors & UX Conference was held in Detroit, MI bringing together over 350 auto interior professionals with 25 speakers and awards for the 10 best interior vehicles.

Cockpit interiors, both physical and digital, have been a relatively stable environment in past years. The onset of electrification, autonomy and the drive for sustainability is turning the traditional interiors industry on its head.

WardsAuto Interiors & UX Conference is back with a bang after a three-year hiatus, bringing together decision makers and thoughtleaders who are instrumental in creating and innovating the future interior.

There were speakers on a variety of topics including:

·      The Sustainability of Materials – Creating a Carbon Neutral Interior. Panel included:

          Katie Kutskill, Sustainable Leather Foundation

          Fernando Caccia, Bader Leather

           Marcos Tonndorf, Auria Solutions

           Steve Jeske, Jeske Advisory Group

·      Cockpit of the Future – Transforming the Vehicle to the Third Space

·      Beyond Zen Minimalism: How to Create True Luxury in EVs

For the materials industry, The Sustainability of Materials was clearly the key session of this conference. Ms. Rose Ryntz, former VP at the IAC group, did an excellent job of moderating the passion-driven discussion. Leather (Fernando & Katie) and materials (Marcos& Steve) leaders did an excellent job of unpacking the nature of recycled surface materials and how they can help reduce carbon footprint in automobiles.

The biggest question of the day was: Should automakers be favoring recycled materials as opposed to traditional materials such as leather? According to Fernando, and the remainder of the panel, OEM’s will benefit both financially and through carbon footprint, if they reflect on the true reach of leather. Leather is a waste-stream of the meat industry and as our population is eating meat, we have the opportunity to upscale and reuse hides for leather. Contrary to popular belief, animals are not harvested for leather. If we don’t turn parts into a waste stream from the meat industry, they would simply be burned in a landfill. He provided a great example of what happens when synthetics are used instead of cross-industry repurposing:

In 2020, 33 million cattle were processed in the United States for beef consumption. 28 million were used for leather in furniture, shoes, automotive interiors, etc. Therefore 5 million were sent to burn in a landfill. We could have produced 86 million pairs of shoes, 1.6 million sofas,96 million footballs… but instead we used synthetic materials and added over120 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That is just the figure from the US – and just one year. This is happening in many regions, every year. If we understand where leather is coming from, and what it’s attributes are, OEM's will realize they can be more sustainable by using it.

Just as the medical industry uses collagen and fat for medicines, supplements and skincare, OEM’s can help the planet by using a material that has been available since the stone ages, instead of creating something new. When responsibly sourced, this repurposing can make a great difference in our world.

Auria solutions also has sustainable, recycled materials in their product line. The moderator asked, “What innovations and challenges to using materials that are recycled?” They interestingly shared that today it is actually very difficult to get a steady source of materials. “It can be very costly and difficult to get virgin, chemically-untreated materials” to make their products. Their biggest challenge is the supply base, and the sophistication of our recycling industry.

For leather specifically, the group was asked about digital cutting vs. die pressed – are there any advantages of either on cost or sustainability topics?

From Fernando: “Yes definitely. There are new technologies that can help reduce scrap, analyze the hide with precision, and nest patterns in the best way. There is also tech out there that can help us use scrap materials. There are innovations in Retan/Finishing such as more efficient spray guns and infrared technology. OEM’s may think the leather industry is out of touch but, we have been working to create a more sustainable future, innovating our processes, and learning from the past for years.”

Steve Jeske, who spent his entire career in automotive surface materials (both cloth and leather), brought some interesting points as well. “There is an additional need for collaboration between the OEM, seat manufacturer, and materials provider that includes pattern development as well as shape of seat to improve appearance and reduce waste. There is a significant amount of waste in engineering changes, because in today’s process, optimal application is not discussed until there is a quality issue - if some of that was addressed upfront, even more waste could be avoided.”

The conversation then moved to:

What does recyclability mean to us in terms of a carbon neutral interior?

What are the measurement methods we're using doing for how we're looking at the products?

Do you think that OEM specifications have a good understanding of what their sustainability numbers and expectations are?

Katie commented: Upcycled, by product, recycled, used/reused are all terms that are important to sustainability and should hold a quantitate value in comparison. It's important that we consider this in both textile and leather development. As materials suppliers, you have core OEM specifications to adhere to. It's important that OEM’s and suppliers look at equally at sustainability metrics as well. At this point in time standards themselves don’t call out to actual consistent metrics. There is VOC, fogging, durability - however they're unique to each OEM. The way they’re calculated is unique to each OEM. There is a lot of opportunity to develop further metrics for all materials to help define what recyclability and carbon neutrality means for competition and application.

Is there an organization working on standard measure across all industries? An organization that is looking at how materials suppliers can do the same testing to get the same metrics across all industries or is everyone doing it separately today?

Presently, no. Not for materials. It is becoming a requirement to have a CSR report to prove that you're working on CSR, however methods and metrics are not the same. This would be a good initiative although highly different among suppliers and industries (ex: automotive vs. fashion standards).

According to Katie, across the leather industry and incorporate reporting legislation, ESG metrics will become a requirement, otherwise fees will be instituted. Currently this is only true for fashion, not furniture or automotive.

Fernando further commented that OEMs must look at the bio-based content of their interiors and strive for products that have a higher percentage (of bio-based materials), because they are more sustainable. To further connect with OEM goals, there are innovations such as leather that doesn’t get hot and has reduced weight. These benefits will help on electric vehicles among other programs. Lightweight materials have good aesthetic and can reduce overall weight in the vehicle – a constant initiative by our customers. Further, there are new technologies that transfer electricity through the seat allowing for more innovation opportunity.  

Then a reporter from Wards asked the million-dollar question. “Why do you suppose leather has the reputation of not being sustainable? People presumably wouldn’t get a leather package in their vehicle because they believe it is not sustainable…”

First Fernando responded stating we must look at how we make the leather - and how we have made leather to look more like vinyl, how vinyl is made to look more like leather. Most people cannot tell the difference until you look at the comparison over  time -then you will see a huge difference. We also live in an era of misinformation. We're buying half-truths. ‘Let's stop cruelty by not buying leather. If we buy leather, we are hurting animals.’ However, leather is a sustainable waste stream from the meat industry. As people continue to eat meat, we can make the most of the beef industry and we can get all the other products that come out of an animal such as vaccines, cosmetics, collagen, paint, etc. Likewise, we can use the remainder of this investment for leather. We have a choice to throw the hideaway, put it in a landfill to burn and create more problems -- or put it into an (automotive) interior. Another thing people talk about is CH4 (methane) – how the cows are warming up the planet. If you look at the true value cycle, the methane from the animal’s life stays in the atmosphere for 12 years. It’s a natural cycle. While when you burn fossil fuels (CO2) to create synthetic materials those chemicals stay in the atmosphere for 1000 years. With the rise of synthetics, we're adding more to the atmosphere than ever before. We must educate ourselves and really find the facts when deciding which articles are more sustainable. To help, the Leather Working Group (LWG) promotes auditing of sustainable supply chain. They review the responsible sourcing of animals, have initiatives to protect deforestation, and learn from their lifecycle assessments. In the end, consumers want to feel good about the choices they make so there is a lot of auditing and regulation work to do on our side to really show the end consumer the benefits and use of leather can be.

Steve further commented stating “the real issue” - the only reason OEMs are using synthetic products instead of leather - is cost. Synthetics have tried to make a cheaper and inadvertently less sustainable product to mimic leather for years. The leather industry is too far behind in the CSR world to successfully display the truth.


For more on leather education, automotive leather, and our sustainable story:

Media Contact

Jacquelyn Smith, Pangea



About Pangea

Pangea is a global leather supplier to the world’s leading automotive brands, providing full interior solutions that are driving the future of mobility interiors. Headquartered in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Pangea serves its customers on four continents with over 3,500  team members. For more information,, and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter (@Pangeamade).