DEARBORN, MI – Leather production is a lot cleaner than it used to be, thanks to more environmentally friendly types of chrome used in the tanning process.

But three leather suppliers presenting at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference demonstrate the continued push to reduce the environmental impact of a material that used to be limited to luxury cars but now is becoming common in high-volume, affordable vehicles.

Bridge of Weir Leather, a Scottish company founded in 1905 and whose long list of vehicles supplied include the Model T, is marketing Low Carbon Leather, which is produced with the help of a $10 million thermal-energy plant that opened in 2009 and converts solid waste into steam for drying and heating water used in the tanning process.

“Our goal is to have a zero-waste production process,” says Dale Wallace, vice president-global automotive sales at Bridge of Weir. “We’re working toward a closed-loop production system.”

In the past, Bridge of Weir shipped some 120 tons (109 t) of solid waste to landfills every day. The on-site processing of the material, as well as treatment of wastewater, reduces by 100 tons (90 t) the amount of waste the supplier sends to landfills daily.

Wallace says auto makers requesting price quotes from leather suppliers often set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the production process. China also is cracking down on carbon emissions by leather suppliers, Wallace says.

Bridge of Weir plans to be carbon neutral with its manufacturing process by 2015. The company supplies leather for several Aston Martin and Volvo vehicles, as well as the Lincoln MKZ, MKS, MKT and MKX. Other notables include the Fisker Karma, Mercedes-Benz SLS and Range Rover.

Another “leather” supplier, Italy’s Alcantara, doesn’t actually produce leather, but instead markets a highly convincing substitute. Alcantara looks and feels like suede but is fully synthetic, based on polyester fiber.

Real suede is up to 50% heavier than Alcantara, which also better maintains a stable surface and resists fading, says Orazio Di Giovanni, chief manager-technical marketing and design at Alcantara, based in Milan.

Founded in 1972, Alcantara sidestepped the ecological hazards associated with old tanning processes for real leather.

The supplier achieved “Carbon Neutral” certification in 2009, reducing 49% in one year the CO2 emissions generated from its entire production process, Di Giovanni says.

Minimizing on-site energy consumption at the plant near Rome has been a priority for nearly 20 years. In 1994, Alcantara began purchasing eco-steam, and the following year the supplier transformed industrial waste into co-products for the footwear and packaging industries. An eco-friendly co-generation plant came onstream in 2000.

In 2006, the facility started converting main textile waste into raw material for industrial use, and in 2008 Alcantara began purchasing renewable electricity from a hydroelectric plant on the Nera River.

Di Giovanni says producing 10.7 sq.-ft. (1 sq.-m) of Alcantara generates 10 times less CO2 than that emitted for manufacturing a pair of leather shoes.  Alcantara plans to build a new co-generation power station at the plant next year to further reduce CO2 emissions.

Di Giovanni says the faux suede is priced to compete with premium leather, and primary applications are headliners and seats.

Key vehicle brands using Alcantara for interiors include Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrari. Some 323 sq.-ft. (30 sq.-m) of the material is necessary for a Ferrari interior, he says.

Leather is gaining acceptance in every vehicle segment, no matter how inexpensive.

While Alcantara and Bridge of Weir are small companies focused on exclusive segments, Eagle Ottawa is one of the world’s top automotive leather makers with plants in Brazil, Hungary, Thailand and three each in China and Mexico.

But high volume does not excuse the Auburn Hills, MI, supplier from environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.

Nathan Mullinix, vice president-global research and development at Eagle Ottawa, says the supplier is constantly pursuing more efficient, cleaner production methods to minimize waste and CO2 emissions.

On its website, Eagle Ottawa says it was the first automotive leather supplier to use two landmark innovations: water-based finishing systems and “chrome-free” leather.

And while Eagle Ottawa deals in high volume, it also serves luxury-vehicle brands, including BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Land Rover, Lexus, Infiniti, Cadillac and Acura.

Its biggest single customer is the General Motors GMT900 truck and SUV platform, which sold 800,000 vehicles in 2011, according to WardsAuto data.

The supplier says some 40% of those vehicles, including the Cadillac Escalade, GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado, have Eagle Ottawa leather.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com