Auto suppliers generally know best when it comes to what environmentally friendly material is appropriate for an application, say panelists at the Ward's Auto Interiors Conference.

The result of auto makers giving suppliers this development responsibility could be the proliferation of eco-products in vehicle interiors, the group agrees.

Given the increase of models sold across many markets today, auto makers complain it can be difficult to obtain the same renewable or recyclable materials for all interiors.

“One of the things that would help us a lot is (for OEMs) to specify what, and not necessarily how,” says Karl Henn, engineering manager for Lear Corp.

“If you're going to specify foam, don't necessarily specify it has to be soy foam or castor-oil foam or whatever it happens to be,” he says. “Tell us what you want it to do mechanically, and let us go out and find the right foam formulation, the right place to buy it and the right way to engineer it.”

Suppliers have had such development abilities for quite some time, Henn notes.

Seat suppliers such as Johnson Controls Inc. know what green materials are commercialized globally and which are region-specific, says Nick Petouhoff, director-seat innovation for JCI.

Petouhoff advocates suppliers and vehicle engineers sit down early in the development process to discuss the use of green materials.

However, JCI successfully is able to supply coconut fibers from Asia for use in vehicle seats, with European auto makers the largest consumers of such fibers.

“Sometimes (sourcing eco materials) can be a challenge from a logistics standpoint, but that's something we've got to change,” Petouhoff admits.

JCI and other suppliers that make and buy foam are working to get auto makers to “define a method that allows us to have slightly different technologies in each region that gives us the same performance,” he says.

“There's a method that has been proposed, and we're trying to get adoption from all the OEMs. There is one OEM that still has some concern.”

Lear has developed a new seating system dubbed Evolution that integrates seven of the supplier's patented eco-technologies, reducing seat weight by 25 lbs. (11 kg) compared with conventional vehicle seats.

The Evolution seat, which the company says does not compromise strength or safety, is set to debut in an Asian-market vehicle in 2011.

JCI has a new product called Synergy Seat it says reduces seat mass 20%-30% over conventional vehicle seats and is covered in nearly 100% recyclable synthetic leather.

Petouhoff says the faux leather has a lower environmental impact than real leather, which requires tanning to prevent animal hides from decomposing and involves harsh chemicals.

Lear's Henn believes the auto industry has not been given enough credit for the strides it has made in reducing the environmental impact of vehicle manufacturing.

The mass reduction achieved by Lear's EVO power and manual-seat structures will save about 152 million lbs. (69 million kg) of steel this year, equivalent to taking nearly 425 Boeing 747 airliners out of service, he says.