Burgers and boots: How lab-grown moved into fashion

The leather industry produces toxic waste and is linked to deforestation - but where do the sustainable alternatives really lie?

Following the breakthroughs of lab-grown meat, lab-grown leather is now getting attention from big investors, with start-up VitroLabs alone raising $46 million.

This Californian company invented a way to grow leather by combining stem cell technology, biomaterial research and 3D printing to create a flawless material with the same scent, feel and properties as real leather.

There is an ethical hurdle for this type of tissue engineering though – the source of the cells used is a one-time biopsy tissue taken from a living animal. The ‘seed cells’ are placed in a specialised bioreactor, and fed with nutrients to self-regenerate indefinitely, growing into a full hide within weeks.

Their strapline is that ‘A Single Biopsy From This Cow Can Make Millions of Handbags. All while she remains grazing happily, right where we left her’ and they claim it is a humane, sustainable lower impact and waste-free alternative to conventional leather. It could change the face of the exotic leathers trade too, as crocodile or ostrich skin may be replicated in future.

You may be surprised that animal welfare and rights charity PETA are pro lab-grown meat, as their mission is to reduce animal suffering. So they would probably take the same stance on the same technique used for leather. But why do we need another leather alternative when there are already many on the market?

If you choose to avoid animal products, vegan options may not be as eco-friendly as you think. To get the right flex and water repellent finish, Polyurethane (PU)-based ‘pleather’ is essentially made from fossil fuels, while commonly used polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is described as ‘poison plastic’ by Greenpeace, having the most environmentally damaging impact of all plastics.

Cleaner, greener plant-based alternatives such as Piñatex, made from waste pineapple leaves, or Vegea, made from a by-product of grape processing, do exist but contain petrochemical-based elements so won’t biodegrade.

If you aren’t vegan, you may think that as leather is natural, it’s a fairly sustainable choice; but leather also has some serious sustainability issues as a by-product of the meat industry. According to the WWF, extensive cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in virtually every Amazon country, accounting for 80 per cent of deforestation.

Tannery
Leather tanneries create highly toxic waste in places like Bangladesh. Image Manuel Marano.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition scores materials for their impact from zero upward and gave most leathers a total of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution.

Although European countries have cleaned up their act, in India and China – the two biggest processors and exporters of leather globally – tanneries generate highly toxic waste, laced with chromium, lead and arsenic. Workers as young as ten have severe impacts on their health through exposure to these chemicals with no safety equipment.

Pollutants also enter the food chain when wastewater is released into rivers and onto farmland, poisoning the soil and damaging their crops.

What is the alternative?

Tanning methods for any material need to evolve and sustainable plant extracts from rhubarb and olive, plus traditional roots and leaves, can colour and preserve it instead. This takes longer, but produces far less harmful waste. But we can’t get away from the huge demand for leather itself.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, around 1.4 billion hides and skins of animals were used in global leather production in 2020, with footwear using over 47 per cent that. If we shift to a much needed more sustainable agriculture model – with plant-based food centre plate, and less but better meat – this will also mean less hides are available, despite demand continuing to increase.

Leather demand
Demand for leather is growing alongside new technology to create alternatives.

As mentioned, vegan lab-grown leather is now possible: Modern Meadow has created the world’s first bio fabricated animal-free leather called ZOA. Made from fermented yeast cells and plant derived protein, it has 65-80 per cent less greenhouse emissions than traditional leather, but amid the noise and $50 million investment, there is not yet any commercial availability due cost.

The race to scale up these new technologies may be won by another contender. Described as ‘infinitely renewable’, mushroom leather needs only a fraction of the resources. Advances in vertical farming for food means this transferrable tech is helping it appear on the high street sooner.

Bolt Threads, which produces a certified vegan mushroom ‘unleather’ called Mylo, is working with a mushroom producer in the Netherlands using their state-of-the-art, 100 per cent renewable energy powered indoor farming facility, to produce it on a mass scale.

Reproducing what happens on the forest floor in a controlled indoor environment, billions of mycelial cells grow on sawdust and renewable organic material to form an interconnected 3D network, which then is tanned and dyed. The whole process takes less than two weeks, versus the years it can take to raise livestock.

Fashion collaborations with designer Stella McCartney, Ganni and Adidas, whose  mushroom-based edition of their iconic Stan Smith trainers are out this year, are enabling them to scale up production, with the aim of it being a more affordable everyday material.

Mushroom leather
Mushrooms can make a sustainable leather alternative. Image Marchenko Family. 

We need these smarter, more sustainable alternatives that step away from fossil fuels and eliminate factory farmed animal inputs. Better still, we can join the dots between the new tech materials and use food waste or renewables as part of the raw materials.

One of the best scenarios would be for more widespread manufacture of biodegradable, plant-based leather alternatives to be done in tandem with decreasing industrial animal farming. Land use could shift to rewilding alongside regenerative mixed farming, with cattle a much smaller part of the picture.

Nature-inspired biomimicry and bio fabrication have the potential to bring together the best of the natural and human-made world, but technology can only go so far – and there are the same old problems with who owns and benefits from these new processes and patents.

The bottom line is we always need to look at the full life cycle of the things we buy, reduce our consumption, repair what we have – and say no to fast fashion. 

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