For the “sustainability” episode of The InEVitable, Jonny Lieberman and I chat with Volvo senior design manager Rekha Meena, live and direct from Volvo HQ in Gothenburg, Sweden. Meena was kind enough to stay after hours at work, while Jonny and I went in earlier than normal to the Podcast One studios in Beverly Hills.
And it was all worth it, as Meena gave us a master class on a variety of fascinating, wide-ranging topics, including what it’s like to switch from designing hotel spaces and home furnishings to car interiors, to her move from India to Sweden, and her jump from a mass market brand (Suzuki) to a luxury nameplate (Volvo). And that’s all before we dive deep into her work as a color and material designer at Volvo and explore her passion for creating stunning interiors that are not only rewarding for the senses, but sustainable for the planet.
Meena has spent 17 years in the automotive industry; the first six of those years with Maruti Suzuki, Suzuki’s joint venture in her native India. At Suzuki, Meena used her masters degree in textile design from the National Institute of Design (India’s top design school), to inject color and life into the popular, value-focused brand. She won numerous awards while at Suzuki, not just for design excellence, but for her skills as a manager as well.
Without question, her combination of skill, experience, and warmth (watch the vodcast!) made it impossible for Volvo to pass on a talent like Meena—but just how does one move roughly 4,000 miles north, from India’s year-round warmth, to cold and dark Swedish winters? And perhaps even more jarring—from a mass-market Japanese brand famous for motorcycles to a premium brand known around the world for its commitment to safety? With a smile, as we find out.
In her time at Volvo, Meena has worked to develop the interiors for numerous concept and production vehicles, including the all-electric, autonomous Volvo 360C concept, the Polestar2, and Volvo production models including the S60, XC40 and C40. We spend much of our time diving into different surfaces and materials she selected for the C40, her latest project, specifically the special backlit trim panel that spans the passenger side of the dash. Partly made of recycled plastic, this translucent panel depicts a stylized topographical map of Sweden’s Abisko national park that has a three-dimensional appearance when backlit.
The C40’s carpet is made of 100 percent recycled soda pop bottles (PET plastic) and the Fjord Blue launch edition comes standard with a vegan, leather-free interior. This is because going forward, Volvo EVs will be leather-free, which also means when Volvo only sells EVs, none of its vehicles will use leather. That’s pretty huge. So what will replace animal hides? Wool-blend fabrics, flax composites, silk, recycled plastics—these are just a few of the materials we discuss on this fascinating deep dive. Is it possible to deliver a sumptuous, luxurious interior without using rare woods, fancy leathers, and other unsustainable materials? Meena says yes, but it’s clear in her explanation of how that it requires a knowledgeable team and disciplined, thoughtful approach.
Which is how Meena and Volvo are approaching a more earth-friendly way to design and produce cars— sustainability through a circular economy. What does this mean? In Volvo’s own words: “Most companies (and people) still participate in a linear economy—you take raw material, make a product, use it, and in the end, throw it out as waste. A circular economy maximizes resources by designing products for durability, reuse, and recycling.”
Volvo’s target is to be a circular sustainable car company by 2040, which is admittedly a hard concept to grasp. The nearer term target for 2025 provides more insight; by then Volvo’s aims to use 25 percent recycled or bio-based plastics, 40 percent recycled aluminum, and 25 percent recycled steel in the production of its cars.
Meena and her team focus on working within these parameters and finding new ways to deliver a premium looking and sumptuous-feeling interior, through the use of materials that are naturally derived, long lasting, and either recyclable or compostable at the end of their useful life.