Is your car vegan?
Actor Michael Bell's is. The 66-year-old Encino resident doesn't eat or wear animal products, and his hybrid car doesn't have a stitch of leather in it.
If it had, Bell said, he wouldn't have bought the car, a 2001 Toyota Prius, despite its impeccable green credentials.
In raw numbers, vegans such as Bell are so few that they barely register on surveys of consumer habits. But to automobile manufacturers trying to win favor among the increasing number of consumers who say they are environmentally conscious, vegans -- who avoid all animal products -- are what one marketing expert called the center of the bull's-eye.
Pleasing vegans, the theory goes, is key to reaching a wider group of consumers -- affluent shoppers who worry about the environment and who are willing to pay extra for food, clothing and even automobiles, if they are made in ways that do less harm to the planet.
Toyota Motor Corp. is so attuned to the sensibilities of these so-called green consumers that the company doesn't even offer leather seats for the popular Prius.
Ford Motor Co., under fire from environmental activists for its gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, ran an eight-page advertisement in the New Yorker magazine touting the company's green credentials. The ad led off with the boast that 11 members of the design team for the company's soon-to-be-released hybrid Escape SUV are vegetarians, and its leader is a vegan.
Even Mercedes-Benz, which does not make a hybrid, will offer a "non-leather" package starting with the 2005 model year, in response to customer requests. Previously, all of the luxury automaker's high-end cars came standard with leather seats.
"As a marketer you want to identify with the passionate group," said Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing for the automobile website Edmunds.com.
"The middle of the bull's-eye is where you want to focus your marketing, and then you want to expand your message around that. If you draw these concentric circles, the middle of the bull's-eye right now is the vegan."
Marr Nealon, a nutritional consultant based in Eagle Rock, is just such a consumer. She doesn't wear silk out of concern for silkworms. She won't eat honey, saying, "It's something the bees make for their own consumption. Why should we take their food?"
Nealon's 2001 Volkswagen Golf has no leather in it. She said she would gladly pay extra to ensure that her car was leather-free and environmentally friendly. Next year, she plans to buy a Toyota Prius, despite its higher cost.
Vegans themselves are not a powerful market force. Joe Marra, executive director of a market research firm that specializes in environmentally conscious consumers, said vegetarians make up just 1.5% of the general population, and vegans hardly register at all.
But Marra's firm, the Natural Marketing Institute, has done research showing that more than a quarter of the adult population, about 56 million people nationwide, say they look for products that are "healthy and sustainable." And the vast majority of these consumers say they are willing to pay significantly more for environmentally friendly products.
It's these customers -- who buy organic produce and biodegradable cleaning products -- whom the car companies really want, Marra and others said.
"The incidence of veganism and vegetarianism is very low, but the incidence of people being aware of issues like cruelty to animals is much higher," Marra said.
This broader circle of crossover consumers accounts for $226.8 billion in sales of alternative products, including organic foods, cruelty-free cosmetics and, increasingly, hybrid and other vehicles that emit less air pollution than typical vehicles, said Brad Warkins, president of Conscious Media.
Warkins puts on an annual trade show for companies that want to reach these consumers. Eight years ago, he said, the conference drew a few small companies; last year, it attracted 800 representatives from hundreds of businesses, including Ford Motor Co. and Time Warner Inc.
Sherri Shapiro, who is directing Ford's marketing campaign for the Escape hybrid, defines the target buyers this way: They have higher than average educational levels and household incomes, they tend to live in metropolitan areas, they read more than average and they watch less TV.
To reach them, the company has taken out ads in the New Yorker, developed a promotion with an organic tea company and sponsored programming on National Public Radio. Last year, Ford co-sponsored Warkins' trade show. There, Mary Ann Wright, who heads the company's hybrid technologies division, told a lunchtime crowd that she had been a vegan for 23 years. Moreover, Wright said in remarks that were later printed in the New Yorker ad, 11 members of her design team were vegetarians.
Toyota, trying to reach a similar audience, has co-sponsored a yoga conference and advertised the Prius in Organic Style magazine.
While not targeting vegans or vegetarians with direct appeals, Toyota has chosen not to offer its Prius with leather, aware that might offend some customers.
"We are sensitive to this," said Paul Daverio, manager for advanced technology vehicle marketing at Toyota. "Prius does represent social responsibility to the environment for many people.... And we understand that there are some issues with leather."
Discussions of vegan and vegetarian ethics abound on the Internet, and many of them eventually get around to the issue of leather in cars.
In one chat session titled, "Is your car vegan?" a participant named Drew confessed that his car had leather seats. But Drew said he planned to sell the car soon and buy one with no leather in the interior.
Michelle Vadeboncoeur, who moderates several chat lists devoted to the Toyota Prius, said the question of whether the hybrid car has any leather in it comes up about once a month.
She was one of several people who responded to Drew.
"Some people might be past the whole idea that an animal (usually a cow) had to die to provide you with the leather seats that you want," Vadeboncoeur wrote. "However -- what about the environmental impact of raising that cow? Trees had to be cleared, land that could've been used for food crops was used for cattle feed."
Sam Gerard, a businessman who lives in Santa Barbara, has made finding the perfect vegan car a personal quest.
Gerard, a vegan who manufactures a line of plant-based nutritional products, isn't interested in the Prius, which he thinks is ugly, or the Escape, which is too ordinary for his tastes. He wants a luxury car.
For the last two years, Gerard says, he has scoured the Internet and written letters to automakers, to no avail. His last car was a special order from Mercedes. The automaker let him order synthetic seats, he said, but it was really hard to find a steering wheel that wasn't wrapped in leather.
He now plans to buy a BMW, having discovered after months of calling around and grilling salesmen that one of the upgrade options on the company's 300 line can be ordered with its seats, upholstery and steering wheel wrapped in synthetic suede.
There are still some animal byproducts in the tires, Gerard said, but he believes he did the best he could.
He scoffs at the idea that Toyota, Ford and other car companies are interested in the vegan market. "If they cared, then why can't you find a luxury car without any leather in it?" he said.
As the market for the Prius has grown more mainstream, more and more potential customers have had the opposite reaction: Why can't you buy a Prius with leather in it?
Christopher Cutright, fleet director at Hollywood Toyota and a top Prius salesman, said that nowadays most of his customers are requesting leather seats in their cars -- and paying a $1,500 premium to get it.
Last month, Cutright said, Hollywood Toyota sold 36 Priuses -- 30 of them with leather added by the dealership.
At Toyota, marketing officials are well aware of the brisk and lucrative business that dealers are doing in after-market leather. Through daily monitoring of Prius chat rooms online, the company has also learned that many of the company's new customers want leather seats.
That has sparked a debate within the company: These consumers are the crossover market Toyota wants for its hybrid car. But putting leather in the Prius, even if it is just an option, could turn off the vehicle's core customers.
"It would disturb me because I would feel that they are caving in for the few extra bucks they could make," said Bell, the vegan actor, who has already ordered a new 2005 Prius.
Still, there is a way around the issue of dead cows: synthetic leather.
"There are imitation leathers that do not have an impact on the environment and we are looking at that," Daverio said.
But Daverio insists Toyota will never make a Prius with real leather.
"Oh, no," he said. "We would never do that."