Over the past few years, we've seen the rise of plant-based meat that could easily pass for a burger (Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger); milks, yogurts, and ice creams from every imaginable nut and legume; and a rising social consciousness of the ease and benefits of animal-free eating. On the (very) near horizon looms a mind-blowing feat — "clean meat", i.e., the ability to commercialize lab-grown meat that is identical to the meat bought in supermarkets today (sans slaughterhouse and greenhouse gas emissions). It is an incredibly exciting time for the plant-based movement.
While food and agriculture have garnered considerable public mindshare, the animal-free textiles industry has quietly advanced in parallel. Where once "faux leather" was synonymous with "pleather" (a cheap and environmentally-unfriendly material made from polyvinyl chloride), today we are seeing the emergence of incredible leather-like textiles made from a range of sustainable and innovative derivatives, including fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps even more exciting, is that the process of creating genuine animal leather is reaching a profound tipping point: it no longer requires an animal life. This is possible through a process called biofabrication. And it's pretty mindblowing.
Biofabrication — how it works
Clothing fiber consist of polymers, or molecules that repeat over and over again. In the case of cotton, the molecule is cellulose. For leather, it's collagen. And for silk, it's fibroin. If you could create and isolate that molecule — let's say collagen — then, in theory, you could replicate it in a way that would ultimately result in the same polymers that come together to form leather. And, as Massive Science explains, you could even slightly modify the molecule to make the material take on certain qualities, like a particular color, strength, or even the ability to glow-in-the-dark.
As novel as this sounds, this science has actually been around for decades. In fact, this create-isolate-replicate model is how Genentech first manufactured human insulin for diabetics using E.Coli as a host for the replication process in the late 1970s. Decades after Genentech's breakthrough, advances in the field of genetics make this process considerably more efficient. And, already in medicine, these techniques have been used to 'biofabricate' sophisticated body parts like ears, bone, and windpipes that have been successfully implanted into human patients.
Commercializing the product
It's no surprise then, that people like Andras Forgacs, founder of biotech company Modern Meadow, started wondering why — if you could create something as complicated as a human windpipe — you couldn't generate something as molecularly simple as leather.
"Animal products are just collections of tissues. and right now we breed and raise highly complex animals only to create products that are made of relatively simple tissues. What if, instead of starting with a complex and sentient animal, we started with what the tissues are made of — the basic unit of life — the cell?
...I'm convinced that when we look back on today, on how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make...handbags we'll see this as wasteful — and, indeed, crazy."
Andras Forgacs, Founder of Modern Meadow
Forgacs's ponderings led to action when he founded Modern Meadow, successfully growing leather (or 'bioleather' as it's often called) — a product he named Zoa which made its first public debut in the form of a graphic tee on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). In March 2018, Modern Meadow partnered with Evonik Industries, a European chemical company, to scale the production of Zoa. With the ability to now fully commercialize the product, Forgacs and team are being inundated with inquiries from designers across a range of industries, including automotive, fashion, and sports. (LIVEKINDLY).
The Zoa graphic tee on display at the MOMA (image credit: Modern Meadow)
Looking ahead: the implications of lab grown leather
The ethical and environmental implications of removing animals from the textile supply chain are no doubt enormous — lives are spared, carbon emissions go down, waste production goes down, chemical inputs go down, land usage goes down, water usage goes down...the list could go on forever. But what's particularly powerful about this shift is that the economic incentives are running in parallel. Animal leather is a $100 billion dollar global industry that relies on a massively resource intensive supply chain — which means high barriers to entry and a high ongoing economic risk. Lab-grown leather, on the other hand, requires neither raising and managing masses of livestock (not to mention the waste products and biohazards that go along with that), nor acquiring and maintaining extensive pasture land, nor utilizing tons of conventional tanning chemicals. And, whereas the end-to-end process of creating conventional leather takes years, generating lab-grown leather takes just two weeks.
Of course this hasn't gone unnoticed, explaining the flood of funding from some of Silicon Valley's leading investment funds, as well the Hong Kong billionaire, Li Ka Shing — as well as emerging competition from companies like Bolt Threats. Indeed, all signs point to a major disruption ahead for the conventional leather industry.
- El Gamal, Abraham. Massive Science, "Lab-grown leather and spider silk are the future of your wardrobe,"November 2017.
- Murray-Rag, Nadia. LIVEKINDLY, "Vegan biotech company poised to disrupt $100 billion leather industry," January 2019.