17 August 2023

Volvo’s leather hypocrisy

Mike Redwood ponders the decline of the Volvo estate car and the company’s decision to move away from leather seats. Published on ILM.

It looks as if Volvo Cars is ending the production of estates. A recent announcement that they will no longer be sold in the UK matches events in the US and elsewhere. The UK media immediately found industry “experts” to comment on the significance of the brand giving up models that have been central to its purpose since the 1959s. Without estate cars, what are Volvos for?

Curiously, the BBC’s expert represented the market position of Volvo estate cars solely in terms that slipped away 30 years ago. Then, Volvo had cleverly established its square, safe, sturdy estates as perfect for middle-class family life. They were particularly suited for those wealthy enough to be driving around their children, while towing the pony, to gymkhanas and other horse events. The Volvo estate offered quality, utility and value for money. Worth saving up for as it lasted a long time without aging.

The transformation to meet the changing generations in a more globalised world has been fascinating. Around 1990, Volvo introduced the 850 estate, which was less of a big box and more of a dart, offering better dynamics and crisp front wheel drive. Driven fast, you could wear out an expensive set of low-profile front tyres in less than three months of hard driving. Easy to do as it was great to drive.

The Volvo image changed, but not everywhere was it the same. In the U.S., it became quickly seen as the car of “soccer moms”, with young mothers in white polo necks the prominent drivers. In places like Thailand, Volvos remained cars for chauffeurs, and those being driven to the airport from factories on the coast regularly had to ask drivers to keep the speed below 100mph.

Back in Europe, the car moved steadily to become a family car for the upwardly mobile family and a well-suited vehicle for a company car. Modern, stylish but well suited to carrying bicycles, surfboards as well as goods and samples that are all part of modern life.

The “expert” had missed these developments and the new vital role estate cars play in society. The sad thing is that often the brands themselves fail to follow how and why consumers buy their products. Consider the original brushed pigskins Hush Puppies and their curious mix of customers or Timberland evolving from Yellow Work Boots to boat shoes that were so much on trend, holidaymakers in Rome were mugged for them.

Ecco shoes had to negotiate the Volvo experience in their early decades with the U.S. seeing them as high quality, exceptionally comfortable men’s footwear. Southern Europe saw them as quite high fashion while their Scandinavian home thought of them as rather down market. In the UK, the company’s comfortable everyday ladies footwear was adopted by elderly ladies and this image became so strong that retailers would not hold other styles. It took a decade of change to successfully dissolve these elements into a unified position.

Scenario planning

As a component player in these scenarios, tanners are one or more steps removed from the consumer, but the reliance is no less great. The outcome can be much worse if it is unexpected, which means that tanners cannot merely talk to their immediate customers to learn about the market but must study the wider picture and watch how consumers are changing their thinking and spending. Scenario planning is only possible if you have an idea of what might be happening. That is a major role of marketing.

I have had Volvo estate cars since the mid-80s. The new sport utility vehicle (SUV) concept has become popular but is not so good for carrying luggage or the outdoor toys of modern life. Nor do I believe that the relentless purchase of SUVs is good for climate change, however they are powered.

When I first bought Volvos, we never had leather upholstery, it came later, but the company’s sudden decision to abandon leather for some form of recycled synthetic materials lacks rationale and has left sales staff floundering. I queried this on social media and Volvo replied: “We agree that leather is a sustainable material, however, from an ethical standpoint, we believe that we should work towards reducing our usage of leather.”

This is a brand with Scandinavian heritage, which should honour the value and benefits of natural material, where we have found their car seats look better after 10 years than when new (we have had three vehicles in the family proving this point).

Leather is both ethical and sustainable

Volvo agrees that leather is sustainable but does not think it ethical to use it and would rather use greenwashed plastic instead. Killing people through climate change in the presence of being ethical is hypocrisy of the highest order.


In these two areas, I think Volvo has failed in its marketing and I suspect the rush to be an expensive luxury vehicle might well be a third. If this is typical of the modern automobile industry, I hope the tanners involved have good marketers and first-rate scenario planning.

I will be keeping my current Volvo estate to see how the leather seats look after 15 years this time. Then I’ll buy another brand.

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