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Want greener EVs? Add plant-based 'leather' says designer Vicki von Holzhausen

Former auto designer Vicki von Holzhausen thinks carmakers can make their electric vehicles even greener — with the help of bamboo and bananas.

Vegan leather made from those plants is a specialty of an eponymous “material innovation” company she founded in 2015 in Malibu, California. The firm started out making handbags, backpacks and other accessories. Today, it ships a variety of plant-based materials to the fashion, furniture and aerospace industries, and has mounted a foray into the auto business.

“We’re working with all of the (vehicle) manufacturers,” von Holzhausen said in an interview. The first plant-free materials from her company should begin appearing in production vehicles from “multiple manufacturers” in a couple years, she added.

So far, the competition is thin: EV companies Tesla (TSLA.O) and Fisker (FSR.N) offer non-leather options in their vehicles, but established automakers have been slow to respond.

"We have found that customers are very enthusiastic about having good vegan options for vehicle interiors ... For us, this is obviously good branding, but it's also the right thing to do (and) our customers seem to agree," Fisker said in a statement.

Car companies got a sneak preview of von Holzhausen's work in a one-of-a-kind Tesla Model S Plaid equipped by supplier partner Unplugged Performance with the company’s Banbu, a biodegradable vegan material made from bamboo fibers.

Unplugged Performance on its website is taking reservations for "guilt-free" vegan leather interiors from von Holzhausen for the Model S, Model Y and Model 3.

Vicki von Holzhausen's husband Franz heads design at Tesla. She said her firm does not do business directly with Tesla.

In September, in partnership with Volkswagen’s (VOWG_p.DE) Spanish affiliate Seat, von Holzhausen fitted the racy Cupra Dark Rebel concept with the same bamboo-based material for the Munich auto show.

Von Holzhausen continues to push the frontiers of sustainable material with its latest product, Replant, described as a farm-to-fabric material made from plant fibers recycled from agricultural waste — currently bananas.

The self-described “California girl” grew up in Pasadena and attended ArtCenter College of Design, finishing school for many of the world’s top car stylists. Von Holzhausen worked for Audi, then at the advanced concept studios of Mercedes-Benz (MBGn.DE) and General Motors (GM.N) before setting up her own business.

Von Holzhausen believes her company’s products have the potential for widespread use in vehicles beyond seating, citing steering wheels, instrument panels and consoles.

“There are so many parts in cars that could be improved and transitioned away from plastic into plant-based materials. I think the sky's the limit.”

Von Holzhausen said the auto industry continues to lag in embracing more sustainable materials.

“Consumers are ahead of the companies in asking for this. We can't transition from the old world to the new world fast enough.”

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by David Gregorio

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