Leather was first made over 5,000 years ago around 3500 BCE. Today, it is an industry worth $100 billion annually. In 2014, the industry was worth $77 billion, of which more than 60% of leather goods sold was footwear. As the demand for animal products like meat rises, so will the supply of animal hides to produce leather. At the same time, however, it’s important to note that the leather industry is wasteful with its animal hides. Due to scars, insect bites, and other blemishes, approximately 20–30% of animal skins go to waste. Additionally 70% of untreated hides typically get discarded before leather treatment. And that’s before the toxic and dangerous tanning process begins.
There has been little innovation to change how leather is made. Leather alternatives try to be a more sustainable option, but they just don’t provide the same texture or smell that conventional leather does. Cellular agriculture provides a solution. Cellular agriculture (‘cell ag’) is the process of growing animal products, like animal skin, from cell cultures and eliminates the need to use animals like cows to get the animal product. Modern Meadow is a cell ag company focusing on growing animal leather, and their work offers a sustainable solution to fill the demand of animal leather products without requiring animals.
Modern Meadow is one of the first companies to use cellular agriculture to grow animal leather from cell cultures. Instead of creating animal skin cells for leather, Modern Meadow focuses on producing the skin protein collagen. Collagen is the main material that makes up leather after every other component of the animal hide is discarded (like the hair, fat, and flesh). By focusing on producing collagen, Modern Meadow avoids the waste that conventional leather production is associated with.
Modern Meadow produces collagen through a process called acellular agriculture, which involves growing and harvesting a product that the cell cultures make, but not the actual cells themselves. To make cow leather, for example, Modern Meadow would insert the genes relating to cow collagen into yeast cell cultures. The yeast will then make many copies of the protein of interest from the animal of interest (collagen and cow, respectively) that will be used to make cow-hide leather. All without requiring a cow. This process is also used to make other cell ag products like Perfect Day’s cow-less dairy milk and Clara Food’s animal-free egg-white.
Growing animal collagen directly to make leather is a much more sustainable option than the current production system. Conventional leather requires the raising and slaughtering of (typically) livestock animals, and raising these animals, like cows, requires a lot of resources in terms of land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock agriculture is accountable for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions; in comparison, global transportation emits approximately 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions related to bovine leather production is associated with the raising of cows for raw materials. By overcoming the need of cattle (or any other animal) to produce leather, using cellular agriculture would reduce the majority of carbon emissions associated with leather production and be more environmentally friendly.
Beyond raising livestock, cell ag leather provides a sustainable alternative to current practices in the leather production process. The process of stripping animal hides of all the other components besides collagen is chemically intensive and is usually mixed into wash water and discarded. Producing collagen directly via cellular agriculture avoids this step altogether, reducing some of the dangers and toxins involved in leather tanning for both the environment as well as workers in the leather industry.
Leather tannery in Fez, Morocco
Andras Forgacs is the founder and CEO of Modern Meadow. He initially worked with his father at their startup Organovo, which created human tissues and organs for testing pharmaceutical products (and the long-term goal of producing replacement organs). Forgacs wondered if there could be any other application of their technology beyond healthcare, like growing leather without animals. After raising $40 million in funding for Modern Meadow in June 2016, he was definitely not the only one who believed that. So far, Modern Meadow has raised a total of $53.5 million in funding.
Modern Meadow’s bioleather. Photo taken from Modern Meadow’s website.
Forgacs believes that Modern Meadow’s advantage lies in the adaptability of their bioleather. Unlike conventional animal leather, Modern Meadow produces collagen in liquid form (essentially, a liquid leather) that can be molded into different shapes and sizes. Other leather properties can be modified too, including the texture, thickness, and durability of the material. The adaptable nature of bioleather means that Modern Meadow can customize and provide designers the specific qualities they would like without having to worry about the traditional leather supply chain. Not only would this be ideal for designers, customizable leather would result in less leather being wasted in producing and designing products like handbags and wallets.
Modern Meadow has also created their own consumer-facing brand called Zoa. As a proof-of-concept for bioleather, Modern Meadow created a prototype t-shirt for Zoa displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The t-shirt was designed as a patchwork of mesh and cotton that was joined together by their liquid bioleather. While Modern Meadow’s main focus will be to initially sell leather to other businesses to design, it will be interesting to see what they come up with while developing their own brand for bioleather.
In a TEDtalk about Modern Meadow and cellular agriculture, Forgacs stated that “we need to move past killing animals as a resource”, and cellular agriculture provides the means to do just that. Cellular agriculture offers a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future while still enjoying animal products like dairy, meat, and leather. While typically associated with growing food products, Modern Meadow shows the breadth of application of cellular agriculture as a way to move towards a post-animal economy.
Modern Meadow plans to have their first finished products released by 2019. It’s expected that high-end brands will be the first designers to incorporate their sustainable leather into production. Eventually, as bioleather production scales, Modern Meadow can explore different sources of leather, including exotic ones like snake and alligator, to produce bioleathers with different properties.
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