Tesla is the latest automaker to join in what would have been hard to imagine a generation ago: a rush by the car industry — long a symbol of environmental wreckage — to project a more responsible image by offering vegan options.

Share story

For the eco-conscious car buyer, Tesla’s luxury electric vehicles, with their neck-snapping acceleration, are proof that performance doesn’t have to be sacrificed at the altar of saving the environment.

But for some discerning consumers, there is a nagging problem. The leather in the seats and steering wheel requires slaughtering animals, and the cloth substitute doesn’t quite measure up for a vehicle that can cost more than $100,000.

Now, in response, comes the Tesla that even a luxury-minded vegan could love.

Synthetic leather, in a shade Tesla calls Ultra White, is available as an option for the new Model X sport-utility vehicle.

Tesla is just the latest automaker to join in what even Euell Gibbons, the naturalist of Grape-Nuts fame, would have had a hard time imagining a generation ago: a rush by the car industry — long a symbol of environmental wreckage — to project a more responsible image.

“All the car companies want sustainability cred,” said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book.

If vegans are willing to pay for a premium vehicle, why shouldn’t they be able to have fake leather, too?

So in recent years, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Ferrari have begun offering models with faux leather seating, and Volvo and Ford have increasingly emphasized the use of more natural components like soy foam in their seats.

Consider the BMW i3. For $42,400 and up, a buyer gets an interior with open-pore eucalyptus wood harvested from a “certified forest.” (Translation: a forest that is responsibly managed.) The interior panels are made of a renewable Asian kenaf plant, and it is all assembled in a wind-powered factory in Germany.

“The aim of developing the BMW i cars is not simply to build emission-free cars,” the company’s website says, “but also to use the maximum possible amount of sustainably produced and recycled materials — especially inside.”

At BMW, it appears, environmental guilt no longer comes standard.

In the case of Tesla, whose brand represents a kind of sustainable luxe, many vegans have complained that it makes no sense for an eco-friendly car to include animal products, given the significant amount of greenhouse gases the industrial agriculture sector emits. Even Nikola Tesla, the inventor for whom the car is named, they point out, was a vegetarian.

Leilani Muenter, a professional race-car driver and environmental advocate who is vegan, said she was disappointed when she first tried to buy the Model S and could not get the faster, sportier model without real leather seats.

She contacted Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and chief executive, who helped her get the desired model with cloth seats, she said. Not too long after — faced with several complaints from similar-minded would-be customers — the company made cloth seats, only in black, an option for all models and trim packages, with a synthetic-leather-clad steering wheel available on special request.

The new seating option for the Model X goes a step further.

“Tesla revolutionized the electric car and now it’s redefined luxury interiors by using these vegan materials, which are both animal- and environmentally friendly,” said Anne Brainard, senior corporate liaison and manager of corporate affairs at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group urged Tesla to stop using leather at its shareholder meeting last June and had since remained in discussions with the carmaker.

“We find that customers enjoy both leather and nonleather options for their Teslas,” Khobi Brooklyn, a company spokeswoman, said in an email. “We are committed to giving customers the ability to build the Tesla that meets their needs and lifestyle choices.”

Jack Norris, executive director of Vegan Outreach, an advocacy group based in Davis, Calif., said Tesla’s move indicated that enough people had voiced concern to push the carmaker to respond.

“Fortunately the options for this lifestyle are really expanding and becoming cool,” Melissa Wood, who drives a BMW with synthetic leather seating, said in an email.