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Auto industry turns attention to sustainable interiors

A push to swap out single-use plastics and other unsustainable materials leaves eco-friendly suppliers in a strong position. By Freddie Holmes

The textiles used to upholster a typical vehicle interior weigh around 30kg (65lbs), with seat covers alone accounting for more than 5kg. Virtually all of those will use textiles will have been produced with non-recyclable synthetic fibres.

Much interest has been placed on how that weight may impact driving performance, but there is also the question of where all that material goes once the car has reached the end of its usable life.

Efforts are being made to ensure that single-use, non-recyclable materials become a thing of the past. It is prompting textile manufacturers, Tier 1 suppliers and automakers to investigate alternatives to the likes of leather, cotton and plastic, which typically end up in landfill or, in many cases, rivers and oceans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 16.9 tonnes of textiles were produced in the US in 2017, with just 15.2% recycled.

MetroSnap Rinspeed & Lenzing interior
LENZING is taking steps to ensure interior textiles do not end up in landfill

Having seen success in a range of industries—from hygiene products to sports, lifestyle and safety clothing—Austria-based fibre producer Lenzing is bringing its sustainable fibres into the automotive space. These wood-based materials are sustainably produced from renewable sources, meaning that once removed from the vehicle, those biodegradable textiles will not harm the environment and could even go on to serve as compost material. One of the company’s solutions, REFIBRA technology, taps into the concept of circular economy and makes use of scrap material from the cotton industry.

Moving on

The impact to which plastic waste has on the environment has become a key focus for the European Commission, which in 2018 introduced a strategy to reform how plastic products are designed, made and recycled. Such initiatives have helped to foster a change in purchasing habits across a range of industries. Automotive interiors, however, have never really been a focal point for sustainability. Bernard Philipp Alowonou, Vice President of Global Business Management New Business Areas at Lenzing, believes that this is changing.

“Consumers have really started to understand how much plastic is used in the textile industry, and what kind of negative footprint each individual leaves by using these plastic materials,” he told Automotive World. The products that Lenzing is introducing into the automotive space are not particularly new, he added, but that is more down to the fact that automotive has lagged behind other industries to a degree. “Our innovations have been in the market for quite a while, but interest was never that high in this space,” he explained, “Now it’s really picking up as the discussion around sustainability grows.”

It is not the first time Lenzing has made efforts to introduce sustainable textiles within new vehicles. Its initial foray into the automotive space began a decade ago, but uptake—and general interest from manufacturers—was fairly limited. With renewed interest in sustainability around the world, its second stab at the market is proving significantly more successful; the company has secured contracts with Tier 1 & 2 interiors and seating companies such as Adient and Tesca, which have both already added TENCELT branded lyocell fibres into their programmes. The Range Rover Evoque also uses TENCELT Lyocell fibres for its premium ‘Eucalyptus Melange’ interior trim.

Metrosnap Rinspeed
Rinspeed’s latest concept vehicle, Metrosnap

In 2020, Lenzing solutions are also appearing as part of the newest Rinspeed concept vehicle. The ‘MetroSnap’ model follows on from an initial concept that was revealed a year earlier, which featured seating upholstery made from TENCEL Lyocell fibres. This year, Lenzing is taking more of a holistic approach to sustainable materials in the vehicle. For example, they used LENZING Lyocell Powder, a supplementary product of LENZING Lyocell production, to the concept car to enhance the reinforcement of the interior trim components. There are additional opportunities elsewhere in the vehicle, such as the ‘separator papers’ found in a battery electric powertrain.

“Our work with Rinspeed has really opened up discussions with the Tier 1s and automakers, which have started to realise the benefits,” said Alowonou. “They now know they are able to position themselves in the market differently by pushing the sustainability aspect, which consumers are looking for.”

Do sustainable textiles cut it?

A heightened awareness around the importance of sustainability is having a significant impact on consumer purchasing trends. In fact, many consumers are now willing to compromise on quality or price if the product has a reduced environmental impact. 

However, automotive may prove to be more challenging than other industries. A new car is typically one of the larger single purchases an individual makes, and the expected level of quality continues to grow. Consumers today typically demand a “premium feel” to the interior, regardless of the vehicle segment. Will consumers notice a gulf in quality when switching to a sustainable material? Alowonou says there is a “tremendous difference” between synthetic fibres and its TENCEL Lyocell fibres replacement, but in a good way: “Compared to wool, synthetics, and even recycled synthetics and leather, there are tremendous benefits to using a botanic fibre solution.”

Part of this is down to the fact that Lenzing has leveraged its expertise in the home textile market. “There is a strong trend where consumers wish to take their experience from the living room at home into the car,” he affirmed. These new materials are not only comfortable in the traditional sense—a plush material that is soft to the touch—but Lenzing has also found success from a moisture management perspective, a key element for any automotive seating solution. “Test results have clearly shown that moisture management is significantly improved with a cellulosic material like ours when compared to typical synthetic fibres,” Alowonou noted. “This is a real benefit that the customer will experience.”

LENZING interior textiles
LENZING has developed automotive interiors solutions from botanic origins

Durability is also an important consideration. Vehicle miles travelled are increasing around the world, and the prospect of robotaxis might see vehicles operating for longer than ever. The Martindale test is a typical means to evaluate the abrasion resistance of a material, and provides a good idea of how durable a material will be. Lenzing has found that textiles made from Lyocell fibres used for seating and other interior applications are up to scratch. “It was a challenge for us to meet these tests, but we made it,” said Alowonou.

An opportunity with electric vehicles

The concept vehicle designed with Rinspeed is an effort to highlight the opportunities that automakers can take advantage of with future platforms, but the question remains as to whether demand for sustainable interiors will begin to scale up.

In coming years, it is likely that materials such as Lyocell fibres will find initial applications as part of a premium trim level. It may then proliferate across other vehicle segments—just as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) have done. Electric vehicles (EVs)—which naturally bring an expectation for improved sustainability—are also likely to favour sustainable interiors. “That story about sustainability is key when it comes to EVs,” affirmed Alowonou. “The BMW i3, for instance, is not simply an electric car, but an ‘eco friendly’ car. This is the area where we see the highest potential before the technology filters down to become a standard ingredient.”

Other automakers have recently touted their work with sustainable interior materials; Porsche has developed a plant-based alternative to leather, while Geely subsidiary Polestar has revealed a vegan interior that uses recycled plastic and cork.

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