From way back in the Stone Age to our current Silicon Age, we have labeled periods of our development as a species by the materials we have come to master: stone, bronze, iron, and so on.(1) And, at each stage, our adoption of nature’s materials has also brought with it the development of other consumables – wool, silk, cotton, wood, and leather – which have assumed important roles in our globally diverse human cultures. And perhaps this is nowhere more evident than when we look back at the Industrial Revolution, a time when the interplay of technological innovation, the strengthening of capitalism through a fast developing banking sector, and machine/transportation/societal engineering led to arguably the most rapid spurt of human development on record. Now, although we seem to have leap-frogged the Cleanroom Age and gone straight to Silicon, there is still a lot happening in contamination-controlled environments both at home and overseas. And the creation and engineering of a thoroughly modern material – lab-grown leather – is one such development that has us wishing that the history books also had a chapter set aside for the Contamination-Controlled Age…
Have you ever heard VOICES? No, we don’t mean ‘those voices,’ we’re actually talking about the annual conference facilitated by The Business of Fashion, a fashion blog that has been dubbed ‘The Economist of Fashion’ and ‘The thinking man’s fashionista.’
According to a presentation by entrepreneur Andras Forgacs at VOICES last year, the majority – if not all – notable developments throughout human history have been linked to our mastery of specific resources found in nature, including stone, bronze, iron, and most recently silicon.(2) What’s more, Forgacs argues, mastering the use of each of these materials has brought with it a cascade of other riches that have shaped the course of human history. During the Stone Age, for example, man learned to use wood for fire and animal hides for clothing. And we all know where that led – basically from that dark part of human history to the present day.
But Forgacs also noted the ways in which some of our mastery became stagnant; granted, we learned how to use specific tools to create specific outcomes, but we failed to progress further – and this is certainly the case when it comes to the commodification of animals’ skins. As he points out, the acquisition, treatment, and final use of hides as a material has barely changed in any meaningful way since we first learned we could ward off the chill by draping a pelt around our bodies. However, the value of the industry that has sprung up to provide us with the treated hides has certainly increased. Citing the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), a report published last year in the B&FT Online posited leather as ‘one of the most widely traded commodities in the world, with an estimated global trade value of approximately US$100billion per year.’(3) It’s an industry well worth disrupting, perhaps.
But which manufacturers are most likely to be interested by the possibilities of a broader spectrum of non-traditional leather availability? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is not the women’s accessories market despite what designers from brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, or Chanel would have us believe. In fact, the biggest consumer of leather is the footwear industry and, here in the U. S., we manufacture only 2% of our annual footwear needs, importing the remaining 98% from overseas. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, three-quarters of these imports come from China at a cost to us of a staggering $14.8 billion.(4) Moreover, according to data from Statista, a ‘statistics portal’ that provides more than 1 million data points on 170 industries to 1.5 million registered users, the market value of leather goods will continue to rise from its current level of $239.78 billion to $271.21 by 2021. Bear in mind that’s only three years from now.(5)
As we noted above, this certainly is a market ripe for technological and entrepreneurial disruption.
And one of the ways in which this is already happening is in the end consumer’s move from environmentally destructive and ethically questionable products. In the same way that many shoppers reject the use of animal fur due to its unquestionable cruelty, the ethical landscape is undergoing a similar tectonic shift in terms of how we perceive leather. Since Naugahyde was first invented back in 1914, alternatives to animal-based leathers have trickled into the market. Naugahyde, a composite of fabric backing and expanded PVC, paved with way for pleather, fleather, and a multitude of other derivatives. But it does have the downside common to most plastics-based items: the final product and some of the chemicals used to create it take anything up to 1000 years to degrade, filling our landfills and polluting our oceans for generations to come.(6) So, assuming that petroleum-associated alternatives are not your look, what are the environmentally-friendly alternatives?
Cork, that natural darling of viticulture, is becoming increasingly popular among designers of purses, wallets, and other semi-durable fashion accessories. And, according to a light-hearted analysis in Apartment Therapy, this is with good reason.(7) Cork trees require no pesticides, little irrigation, almost no maintenance, and the end products are biodegradable. Plus, cork is naturally lightweight (witness the fact that it is used as an insulating material aboard space shuttles) and highly durable. But if cork doesn’t seem sufficiently exotic there’s also the newly popular Piñatex, a pineapple leather. Developed by leather expert Carmen Hijosa when she visited the Philippines, Piñatex is made from the leaves of the plant which are otherwise discarded as a waste product. Recognizing that the strong, flexible fibers could be crafted into a multi-purpose substrate, Hijosa effectively ‘upscaled’ something that would normally be trash, and turned it into an additional revenue stream for local growers. Having developed the idea into a patented product through the Royal College of Art in London, U. K., Hijosa demonstrated that the delicious but infuriatingly difficult to prepare fruit are good for more than just adding to your piña colada or for genteel signaling to (Southern) guests who have overstayed their welcome in your home.
That said, it must be acknowledged that each of these options comes with a fractionally different look and feel. It’s a similar problem to that of the slight dissimilarities between the plant-based Impossible Burger and a ground beef patty – the nuances are subtle but extant nonetheless.(8) So if you are a designer in the fashion – or maybe even automotive – industry and the properties found only in animal hides make them a must for you, perhaps lab-grown fabric is the optimal choice. Let’s consider this newest pretender to the high-end fabrics throne…
To fully understand the differences between old-school leather and its new generation counterparts, we need to take a closer look at the original inspiration for innovation: animal-based leather. According to a Gizmodo report, traditional leather is typically made from cattle, goats, lambs, ostriches, or buffalo, with a growing market for ‘exotic’ leathers such as kangaroo and stingray, the latter being especially prevalent in Thailand where stingrays are populous.(9) And much as we might wish to overlook the production processes that transform cattle into car seats or stingrays into slippers, we cannot turn from the reality that the production process is harmful in myriad ways. Most obviously, it goes without saying that no animal willingly offers her hide to be turned into an absolutely adorable Gucci purse so, of course, there’s that. But with human-rights and health protections being comparatively weak in places where the vast majority of animal hides are processed – countries like China, Brazil, and India –– workers in this industry are arguably the least able to defend themselves against employment-related danger. Tanning hides, for instance, involves the use of a battery of toxic chemicals and dangerous processes that pose significant risks to workers’ health and safety. Contact with the dyes used to color hides can lead to irritation, allergic reactions, dermatitis, cancer, and genetic mutations. Equally, the inhalation or unprotected handling of chromium during the tanning process can result in bronchitis, pharyngitis, enlargement of the lymph nodes, and an increase in lung, nasal, and sinus cancers. And even the general working conditions make a tannery ‘fraught with danger [with] slips and falls on improperly drained floors; exposure to lime, tanning liquor, acids, bases, solvents, disinfectants, and other noxious chemicals; injury from heavy machinery or flaying knives; drowning, being boiled alive, or buried in lime, [being] all terrifyingly real hazards.’(10)
In environmental terms, the picture is similarly bleak. According to Environmental Materials and Waste: Resource Recovery and Pollution Prevention, edited by M.N.V. Prasad and Kaimin Shih in 2016, the leather industry is the third most significant polluter of the environment, after the oil and cement industries.(11) Citing statistics from authors Mukesh Doble and Anil Kumar in Biotreatment of Industrial Effluents, an abstract published in Science Direct demonstrates that for every kilogram of leather produced, 30 liters of effluent are generated.(12) Chemicals in this toxic mix include chromium salts, tannins, acids, solvents, sulfonated oils, and salts. Back in 2005 when the book was first published, more than 50,000 cubic meters of effluent were discharged daily by tanneries in India alone, all with high concentrations of organic pollutants.
So how can a new type of leather ameliorate this problem? In our contamination-controlled arena, the answer is, of course, simple: biofabrication.
As you might deduce from the term, ‘biofabrication’ is the process of building using biology in an intelligent and precisely targeted manner. Sitting ‘at the intersection of biology, engineering, and design,’ biofabrication allows us to reinterpret the materials we have relied upon since the dawn of human history, and lab-grown leather represents how the technology can be deployed to create a material that combines the strengths of natural leather and its synthetic counterparts.(13) Forgacs, to whom we referred at the top of the article, is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, a biofabrication company based in New Jersey that is creating a lab-grown material starting at the collagen level. In appreciating that the way we take collagen from a sentient creature – a cow, ostrich, or yak, for instance – is not only inefficient but that it also has not changed significantly since our earliest times, Forgacs helped develop an animal-free process to grow collagen in a controlled environment by replacing the DNA in cells with new base data. Feeding those modified cells with specialized nutrients leads them to multiply into billions of cells all producing the protein collagen. In sufficient number, collagen cells naturally group together to form first a triple helix molecule which then expands into fibrils to create a network. We can think of fibrils as ‘nanofibers’ which, when networked together, come to form a bundle. This bundle is, in turn, processed into a material Modern Meadow has now trademarked as ‘Zoa™’.
Modern Meadow’s technique is defined as using ‘the equipment found in large commercial fermentation facilities that make food and medical-grade products for the masses.
Does this sound slow and unwieldy? It’s not. Modern Meadow’s Chief Creative Officer, Suzanne Lee, has gone one step further, pioneering a technique that takes the edited DNA and places it into yeast cells that are then ‘brewed’ to produce collagen in a process bizarrely like that traditionally used to brew beer. In an explanation of the process in Lora Kolodny’s article ‘This leather is made in a lab, not from livestock,’ Modern Meadow’s technique is defined as using ‘the equipment found in large commercial fermentation facilities that make food and medical-grade products for the masses.’(14) With a bio-identical look and feel, Zoa™ even exudes that characteristic leather smell, making it an ideal replacement in the automotive upholstery industry for that ‘new car smell’ buyers crave. Moreover, while still in its liquid form, the lab-grown collagen can be ‘transformed into all kinds of different shapes, thicknesses, and sizes that are not bound by the sheet of leather hide that nature gives you.’(15) So, having transitioned from single cell lines to vat-fermentation, Modern Meadow moved into a partnership with Evonik, a chemicals conglomerate headquartered in Essen, Germany, that will enable the company to further scale its production, thereby broadening an already enthusiastically growing customer base.
…Organovo, another biofabrication endeavor that 3D prints replica biological tissues and whose hardware – the ‘Bioprinter’ – was fêted as one of the top inventions by TIME.
But in case it’s tempting to cling to the idea that animal-based leather is still superior and that the lab-grown version might be a passing phase limited to left coast progressives, it’s worth bearing in mind that Forgacs is a man on a mission. He has also co-founded Organovo, another biofabrication endeavor that 3D prints replica biological tissues and whose hardware – the ‘Bioprinter’ – was fêted as one of the top inventions by TIME. Moreover, Organovo was singled out alongside such huge names as SpaceX as one of the world’s top 10 companies positioned to effect lasting change by solving the world’s most intractable problems. And Modern Meadow itself was recognized as one of the “100 Brilliant Companies” by Entrepreneur Magazine. Forgacs certainly seems to have his finger on the pulse of innovation when it comes to additive manufacturing and innovative entrepreneurship. As he noted in his presentation at TEDGlobal in 2013: “Biofabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It’s environmentally responsible, efficient, and humane. It allows us to be creative, [designing] new materials, new products, and new facilities. We need to move past just killing animals as a resource for something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we are ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”(16)
And with estimates that, by 2050, it will take in excess of 100 billion land animals to provide the global population with consumables like leather, it’s clearly time for a shift to a more sustainable alternative that will not enact such a terrible toll upon the planet and its resources. Once again, the three C’s are providing us with the answer: cleanrooms, contamination control, and…creativity. Cattle, on the other hand, need not apply.
Do you own any leather-alternative products? Perhaps a Piñatex purse? A pleather portfolio? A cork carry-all? Or do you think these options are ultimately a passing phase and that we’ll ultimately return to the time-tested materials we’ve always used? We’d love to know your thoughts.
- See https://food-contact-surfaces.com/2017/09/clean-meat/
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