Cruelty-Free Fashion: Growing Leather Without Animals


Published:

Biofabricated leather samples from the new consumer brand Zoa, produced by Modern Meadow.

Photo credit: Modern Meadow

A warehouse filled with huge gleaming silver vats hums around the clock, as billions of yeast cells work to make a material we can wear, sit on and carry around. In an adjoining room, rows of benches hold molds of different shapes and sizes, where sheets of cellulose layer up and become recognizable. In the next room, the material is finished and packaged, destined for designers, tailors and upholsterers.

This is the scene of a biofabrication plant, producing leather without the animals. A futuristic ideal? Companies like Modern Meadow don’t think so. As the firm’s CEO Andras Forgacs, a biofabrication pioneer, said during his 2013 TED talk: “Perhaps biofabrication is a natural evolution of manufacturing for mankind. It’s environmentally responsible, efficient and humane. It allows us to be creative: We can design new materials, new products and new facilities.”

The company is gearing up to launch its first products in a year or so, after successfully debuting a cultured leather T-shirt last year. Modern Meadow’s staff of 80 is working away at a production plant in Nutley, New Jersey, getting ready to revolutionize fashion and the materials industry — and change the way we think about animal products.

A Painfully Prized Material

According to a 2017 report, veganism is on the rise — only 1 percent of Americans identified as vegans in 2014; that figure is now 6 percent. US proportions are comparatively low; in India, as many as 42 percent of people are vegan. Moreover, New York-based consultancy group Baum + Whiteman predict that this year’s trend will be plant-based diets going mainstream. You might expect this to mean a drop in the world’s cattle population, but you’d be wrong — it has been increasing steadily since 2015 and now stands at more than 1 billion cows.

A number of factors could be contributing to this discrepancy, the leather industry being one: valued at $93.2 billion in 2016, the industry is expected to grow to $121.16 billion by 2022. Reasoning that leather is a by-product of the meat industry (which it isn’t), people are often quicker to pull on a pair of leather boots than tuck into a burger. Yet a glance at the process behind leather manufacturing suggests that walking in those boots may be doing more harm than eating a meat-based diet.

Livestock, many of which are reared for their hide, produce an estimated 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The products aren’t even used fully — as many as one-third of the hides produced are thought to end up in a landfill.

In addition to the environmental impact through greenhouse gas emissions and waste, it’s the process of tanning that is perhaps most shocking. Considered one of the world’s biggest pollution threats, the tanning of 23 billion square feet of leather a year directly affects an estimated 1.8 million people through chromium pollution.

Tanning preserves the leather and makes it durable, protecting it against the heat, cold and wet. It’s essentially an accelerated mummification process, beginning with the removal of hair, fat and meat by physical scraping and using bleach and lime pastes. Then the leather is treated using a mixture of chromium salts and tanning liquor. It’s the cocktail of chemicals used that has a toxic effect: in total, about 250 chemicals are needed to soak, treat and dye the leather.

The problem is that leather is usually processed in places with little environmental protection regulation, such as China, India and Bangladesh, so the chemicals are dumped into the environment; on average, tanning one ton of hide produces 20 to 80 cubic meters of toxic wastewater.

It’s not just the environment that’s in danger: People working in the tanneries are exposed to dangerous concentrations of the tanning chemicals, and they’re at risk of falls, drowning and injury by the heavy machinery. The chromium is the most dangerous chemical they handle, causing a whole host of problems, from skin ulcerations called “chrome holes” to respiratory disease and cancer.

Brewing Leather Like Beer

Modern Meadow’s Andras Forgacs thinks there’s another way, and he’s bet his career — and $53.5 million of venture capital — on it.

“Animals are not just raw materials, they’re living beings,” he said in his TED talk. “Already our livestock is one of the largest users of land, fresh water and one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, which drive climate change. ... We need to move past just killing animals as a resource to something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we are ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

“We should begin by reimagining leather.” That’s how Forgacs proposes to shake up the industry — by culturing leather without the need for animals at all. Leather is essentially a simple material — one Forgacs and his team at Modern Meadow have spent the last few years working out how to grow through a process called biofabrication.

It’s not a new process; a decade ago, Forgacs co-founded Organovo, a company that pioneered a technique for printing human tissue for medical use. With biofabrication, it’s possible to grow all sorts of tissues and organs, like windpipes, skin and blood vessels, to implant into patients. Their work garnered a lot of attention, and Forgacs was soon approached about the possibility of creating animal tissue, particularly leather. He accepted the challenge and co-founded Modern Meadow.

Technically speaking, growing leather is simpler than growing human tissue, as there’s only one cell type to deal with. The secret is yeast: They alter the yeast DNA so the cells produce the protein collagen, the main constituent of leather. They ferment the yeast, much like in beer brewing, to grow billions of cells that produce collagen. Then they purify the collagen, which assembles into helices and fibers, forming the material’s structures.

The resulting leather is then tanned using a process with a smaller environmental footprint: “We preserve the material and then treat it to achieve the required suppleness and finish. Less water, less energy, less chemicals.” Modern Meadow’s proprietary process reduces the time it usually takes to make leather — two years — to just two weeks.

Are We Ready For The Alternative?

Forgacs is excited, and rightly so: The process doesn’t harm animals, it uses fewer chemicals and there’s less waste. The leather can even be grown in the shape of a handbag or a shoe, helping manufacturers down the line to reduce their waste. They can also play with the properties of the material, making it thin and transparent or thicker and opaque, soft, breathable and patterned — or a combination of these in a single piece of leather.

“This type of leather can do what today’s leather does, but with imagination, probably much more,” said Forgacs. Indeed, as the company responded to me in an email, “Biofabrication is still in its early stages, but the potential of the technology is massive.”

A Zoa T-shirt made by Modern Meadow. The piece was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Modern MeadowModern Meadow’s materials brand, Zoa, will soon hit the consumer market; its “reimagined” graphic T-shirt was a hit in a fashion exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Dave Williamson, the company’s chief technology officer, told The Atlantic that the T-shirt “will change the way you think about leather.”

“Leather is a gateway material,” said Forgacs — a way to jump-start the biofabrication industry. There are already other applications on the horizon. Bolt Threads is commercially producing engineered spider silk threads, with knit ties available to purchase. The company has also taken an alternative approach to leather: Its material Mylo is made by fungal mycelium cells that self-assemble into a leather-like material.

Think of all the other animal products we could eliminate using biofabrication. Ceratotech is “producing rhino horns without rhinos,” for example. “If poachers and consumers are just after the horn, and we’ve been able to create human tissue using genetic and stem-cell engineering, why shouldn’t we give this a try using rhinoceros stem cells?” said founder Garrett Vygantas.

Then, of course, there’s the holy grail: meat. As a group of researchers from the National University of Singapore and Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad recently argued in a paper in Biomanufacturing Reviews, “Cultured meat or in vitro meat offers a safe and disease-free way forward to meet increasing meat requirement without involving animal sacrifices and at the same time, reducing greenhouse emissions, as compared to conventional meat.”

But as genetic engineering and biofabrication techniques continue to get cheaper and more accessible, it will be the hesitancy of the market holding back the commercial viability of lab-cultured meat: People might be willing to wear something grown in a lab, but eating it is another story. Modern Meadow plans to release its first commercially-available product in 2020, and there’s a lot riding on its success: Zoa will make or break the company, and it also stands to have a big impact on the way the market perceives biofabrication in general.

As Forgacs predicted, the success of cultured leather could open the door to a whole new world of lab-made products, ultimately reducing our reliance on livestock, the suffering of animals and the impact on the planet.

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten is a writing fellow for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is a writer with an MSc degree in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology from Imperial College London. She has served as assistant editor of Microbiology Today and senior marketing communications manager for Life Sciences at Elsevier. She set up Tell Lucy in 2014, with a mission to make the complex understandable. Lucy also runs Bucket List Bookshop — home of the world’s best writing. Find her online at telllucy.com and follow her on Twitter @LucyGoodchild.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by EcoWatch.

See also:
Mothers And Daughters And Sons And Steaks
How Plant-Based Diets Can Heal Our Bodies And The Planet

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

September 22, 2019

Shortly after midnight the Moon settles into her home base, Cancer. The quiet pleasures of familiar places is accented, although a late morning lunar sextile to Uranus may bring unexpected messages or surprise visitors. An informal gathering of close…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

September 2019

It’s time for a workshop!  One plus one always equals two. In a similar fashion EFT plus Law of Attraction always equals effective and positive change. Teaching Emotional Freedom...

Cost: $40

Where:
21 Wiles Farm Road
Northboro, MA
View map »


Sponsor: Medicine My Way
Telephone: 508-523-7132
Website »

More information

In this 90 minute workshop you will find clarity in what brings you joy. You will create your personal vision statement that will help guide you to living a more satisfied, balanced life. This...

Cost: $25 early-bird till 9/20 ($30 after)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Witness the healing power of mediumship! Join New England's own trusted spirit medium Raylene Sousa and top UK medium Dominic Boag from Scotland for an afternoon of spirit messages. If...

Cost: $40

Where:
The Little Meetinghouse
723 Roosevelt Trail
Windham, ME  04062
View map »


Sponsor: Raylene Sousa Medium LLC
Telephone: 207-956-0220
Contact Name: Raylene Sousa
Website »

More information

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

2nd and 4th Monday of every month This psychic message circle is for anyone wishing to raise their connection using their psychic centers known as the “clairs.” Learn how to use...

Cost: $20

Where:
Messages From Heaven Healing and Learning Center
646 Central Street
Suite 3
Leominster, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Members of the Reflexology Association of NH will be offering “mini” hand or foot reflexology sessions at the Salt Cave within Bien Soigne in honor of World Reflexology Week.

Cost: Donations suggested $15 - $20

Where:
Bien Soigne Salt Cave
350 North Broadway
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: Reflexology Association of NH
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

September 25–October 29, 2019 Expert Tai Chi instructor and Qigong Master Instructor Terry Dunn will be giving a total of four five-day intensive workshops in October 2019 at Eastover...

Where:
Eastover Estate & Retreat
430 East Street
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

September 26–29 This training at the Center for Mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) uses mindfulness meditation and cognitive therapy to break the cycle of...

Cost: $1,390

Where:
Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
1035 Cambridge St, Suite 21A
Cambridge, MA  02141
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
Telephone: 617-591-6132
Contact Name: Center for Mindfulness and Compassion
Website »

More information

Come detox, relax and renew yourself for the fall in our sanctuary! We have an intimate gathering of great readers and healers providing services at sampler rates to enjoy their services while...

Cost: $60: 3 Pack Service Special; $25: Single Service

Where:
Healing Power Of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Mirabai Starr was an adjunct professor of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years. Her emphasis has always been on making connections between the perennial...

Cost: $20

Where:
First Parish in Lexington
7 Harrington Road
Lexington, MA  02420
View map »


Sponsor: Lexington Community Education
Telephone: 781-862-8043
Contact Name: Craig Hall
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Maryellen Labelle, David Sholemson and Steve Cunningham are excited to announce Qigong for Inner Peace teacher training fall term 2019. This 50 hour certification training is appropriate for a wide...

Cost: $1100 / $800 early registration

Where:
Yoga Depot
17 Depot Square
Lexington, MA  02420
View map »


Sponsor: Qigong for Inner Peace
Telephone: 617-721-7215
Contact Name: Maryellen Labelle / David Sholemson
Website »

More information

Join life coach Cheryl Richardson and her husband, Michael Gerrish, a psychotherapist and gifted intuitive, for a special evening designed to help you upgrade your life! During this event,...

Cost: $35

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street
Suite 1A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

This Dating Program is the follow-up to Kerri Morrison's workshop, Deliberate Dating: 5 Keys to Successful Online Romance; held Friday, August 16th, 2019 from 6:30-7:30pm. View that event...

Cost: $199

Where:
Awaken Holistic Counseling Services
2 Liberty St., Unit 2L
Newburyport, MA  01950
View map »


Sponsor: Awaken Holistic Counseling Services, LLC
Telephone: 978-255-7893
Contact Name: Kerri Morrison
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Learn Reiki—revitalizing self-care and healing in the palm of your hands. Facilitated by Lou Orsan, Reiki Shihan (master teacher.) This one-day class covers the...

Cost: $150

Where:
Northeast Reiki Center
61 Nicholas Road
Framingham, MA  01701
View map »


Sponsor: Northeast Reiki Center
Telephone: 508-808-5696
Contact Name: Lou Orsan
Website »

More information

With Laura Haley, IET Master Instructor Trainer  This class provides you with everything you need to conduct a powerful Integrated Energy Therapy session on yourself or others (either in...

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
Methuen, MA


Telephone: (978) 474-8010
Website »

More information

Learn the benefits of yoga for families as well as how to develop character in children to get them more focused, respectful, and confident before returning back to school this fall! This class...

Cost: $45 early bird till 9/25 (includes child and a parent), $50 after

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

September 28–29 Saturday 10 am Registration; 10 am–5 pm  Sunday 10 am–5 pm This practitioner training takes place over 2 days and offers students the opportunity to...

Cost: Course Fee: $450; Recalibration Appointment: $333

Where:
The Hampton Inn Coventry Warwick
850 Centre Of New England Boulevard
Coventry, RI
View map »


Telephone: 617-366-6042
Website »

More information

September 28–29 Learn hands-on techniques for the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, as well as the sacrum, psoas and ilium. Leave with tools you can use right away. Coming in...

Where:
Downeast School of Massage
Waldoboro, ME


Telephone: (617) 678-8920
Website »

More information

Learn to overcome spinal tensions through therapeutic postures, designed to decompress your spine and relieve pain. Taught by a certified yoga therapist, classes bring you through poses...

Cost: 5/$50

Where:
Bliss Through Yoga
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice O'Brien
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags