Leather has long been the mainstay of the luxury industry, worth an estimated US$400bn in total, annually — but is it beginning to lose its lustre? Increasing ethical and environmental concerns have undoubtedly led to the rise of vegan leather in recent years. And with many major brands moving away from fur (including the likes of Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, and Prada), as well as exotic animal skins, experts say cowhide could be next on the list.
It’s no secret that cattle rearing, responsible for an estimated 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year, is bad for the planet. While leather is often considered a byproduct or waste material created by the industry, critics argue the material is a built-in part of the business model. “Leather production can be a meaningful part of the profit structure; it’s an important part of industry,” Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight Technologies and the creator of AirCarbon, a new leather alternative, tells Vogue. “I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s a pure byproduct.”
Lab-grown leathers start with a process that’s been perfected by scientists.
© Courtesy of Bolt Threads
It’s not just the carbon footprint that’s the concern: the tanning process — in which animal skins and hides are treated to produce leather — is also highly polluting. An estimated 80 to 90 per cent of leather is treated with chromium, a toxic chemical that can pollute waterways if not disposed of properly, and that can also harm the health of workers who use it.
Currently, the majority of vegan leather is made from polyurethane — a plastic derived from fossil fuels, which of course has its own environmental problems. Plant-based alternatives such as Piñatex, or pineapple leather, do exist, but lab-grown leather is looking to disrupt the entire industry. “In a world where we’re looking to move away from animal products on the one hand, and petrochemical products on the other, you really need to give rise to this third category,” says Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, a company that creates animal-free materials.
One of the most promising types to emerge on the market is produced by growing fungal cells into mycelium — or mushroom roots — and feeding it sawdust.
© Courtesy of Bolt Threads
What is lab-grown leather?
While the term ‘lab-grown’ may conjure up images of scientists gathered around a petri dish, the technology now is way past that point (the scale needed means it is not literally grown in a lab). But as the name suggests, lab-grown leathers do start with a process that’s been perfected by scientists. By beginning at the molecular level, the properties of the final product are more easily manipulated.
Bolt Threads’ Mylo material, one of the most promising lab-grown leathers to emerge on the market, is produced by growing fungal cells into mycelium — or mushroom roots — and feeding it sawdust. This creates large sheets of fluffy foam, which is then processed and dyed, turning it into a leather-like material. “When you touch our material, you get the same feeling as when you’re touching a natural leather,” says Jamie Bainbridge, Bolt Threads’ VP of product development. “If nobody told you whether it was leather or not, you would sit there and try to decide if it was.”
Meanwhile, one of Modern Meadow’s processes involves fermenting yeast to grow collagen, the main protein found in leather. Now, though, the company is using plant-derived proteins — similar to collagen — to create its first leather alternative that’s going to market. “It’s about taking the building blocks of nature to make materials, developing new functionality and properties,” Forgacs explains.
Similarly, a process found in nature helps create Newlight’s AirCarbon material, which, incredibly, is carbon negative, with more CO2 absorbed during the process than is emitted. “We discovered microorganisms in the ocean that use methane and carbon dioxide to make this really beautiful molecule inside of their cells,” says Herrema. “We spent about a decade learning how to replicate that process on land and turn that material we made into a replacement for leather.”
Scaling up the technology
Now the technologies exist, the next challenge is scaling up the production of lab-grown leathers. Promisingly, Mylo has won the backing of a consortium of brands, including Stella McCartney, Kering, Adidas and Lululemon — with the first products made from the material set to go on sale next year. “The consortium is hugely [important],” Bolt Threads’ CEO Dan Widmaier says. “This is bigger than any one brand can do by itself; [the fact that] we have to be a group that works in a non-competitive way to bring this to market is pretty visionary.”
To produce its mycelium threads on a mass scale, Bolt Threads is working with a mushroom producer in the Netherlands that has a state-of-the-art indoor farming facility. But for all these lab-grown alternatives, there are clearly hurdles still to overcome. As tanning continues to be part of the process used to create Mylo, for example, the company will have to find more tanneries that can meet its high environmental requirements. “We will never be perfect; we’ll always strive to improve,” says Widmaier.
Still, gaining the backing of major brands, in addition to those already on board as part of the consortium, is crucial in the company’s mission to replace traditional cow hide across the industry. “As scale goes up, we can serve more partners, as well as bringing the price point down to a place where it can be available for everybody,” he adds.
Covalent products are not only animal-free, but regenerative, and carbon-negative too.,
© Daniel Collopy. Courtesy of Covalent
Looking to the future
Getting the first lab-grown leather products on to the market is a huge first step. But could these alternatives really be the future of fashion? “Like any really disruptive innovation, it’s going to take a while for the industry to adopt it in a big way,” Bainbridge says. “But the signal for the demand is huge right now, and I don’t see it dwindling.”
With environmental concerns only set to increase, the prospect of materials that not only have less impact, but could actually benefit the planet, is hugely significant. “Our goal is to change the paradigm so that over time fashion can actually be a force for environmental good,” Herrema says.
Could we all be wearing lab-grown leather jackets in the years to come? Given its sustainability credentials — and its remarkable ability to replicate traditional leather — it’s looking quite possible.
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