It’s hard to place a finger on what makes leather so alluring. Perhaps it’s the unique supple strength, the timeless chic, or the primal intimacy of donning animal skin. The highly-coveted material is used across the fashion, automotive, and interior design industries, and it tops the charts as one of the world’s most widely traded commodities. Measured in economic terms, its desirability is staggering: In 2010, the United National Industrial Development Organization valued the global economy for leather products at roughly $100 billion per year.
But such a far-reaching market doesn’t come without equally far-reaching costs. Traditional leather production leaves behind a vast carbon footprint, a destructive trail of environmental pollution, brutal animal suffering, and, often, disturbing human-rights violations. Leather tanners, for example, suffer higher rates of cancer, respiratory diseases, and other life-shortening health issues from long-term toxic chemical exposure than the average office worker.
Over the years, several ventures have sought to tap into the boom of the trade while also attempting to find the panacea to these ills. Countless fashion brands have advertised faux alternatives; other companies have sworn by sourcing only from discarded leather cut-offs. But the most compelling approach is being taken by biotech companies such as Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow.
Founded in 2011, Modern Meadow has turned to biotechnology to literally grow leather in a lab. It works like this: Using DNA-sequence editing, ordinary cells are transformed into little factories that churn out collagen, which is the main structural protein found in animal skin. As they churn, the cells are rapidly grown on a diet of nutrients until their collagen forms into a network of fibers. The fibrous sheet is then processed into a “hide” that can be tanned and fashioned into various products. This material is biologically comparable to one procured directly from the backs of animals, but avoids harming any living animals in the process. Subsequently, the method eliminates the ethical questions of raising livestock, as well as limits the human and environmental impact of preparing and treating leather.
“We’re building an entire biofabrication platform,” says Suzanne Lee, the company’s chief creative officer and former fashion designer. “We’re really just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible.”
From a design perspective, being able to engineer a leather-like material allows for entirely new textile opportunities and designs to be explored. “You can create something that is thinner but stronger, lighter but has some new functionality built into it,” she says.
For the consumer, the technology opens up intriguing possibilities, too. Aside from the obvious advantage of ethically conscious shoppers being able to enjoy minimal-impact, high-quality leather, there’s also the possibility of growing the skins of rare—or even extinct—species. Woolly mammoth blazer, anyone? “Obviously it’s not our first priority to take extinct species and bring them back to life,” Lee says, “but it’s exactly the kind of thing that is possible with this technology.”
In June of last year, Modern Meadow announced a successful $40 million round of funding to gear up for commercialization. They currently have a lab-scale pilot plant that supplies enough materials to their partners for prototyping purposes, but the new money will allow the company to build a larger pilot plant for bringing their first-generation products to market. Lee estimates that their products will begin to arrive in consumer hands in just a couple of years.
However, the path to commercial viability will not come without challenges. Growing a sheet of tanned leather from a genetically modified cell is currently a several-week process. This is far better than the time scale of traditional leather production—”think about how many years it takes to actually produce an animal and get to something that can be used as leather,” Lee says. But the company’s multidisciplinary team of PhDs, who include cell engineers, material scientists, tanners, and product developers, is working to tighten the design-iteration cycle and meet the demands of mass production.
During the company’s early stages, critics of Modern Meadow claimed that the vision of creating slaughter-free leather was a little too good to be true. As evidence, they pointed to the company’s use of “donor” animal cells and fetal-bovine serum, which is the most commonly used growth medium for culturing cells—but is also controversially sourced from live calf fetuses. But the company has since phased out both animal cells and animal-based growth mediums, according to the press representative.
Modern Meadow’s cruelty-free status will likely expand the market for leather by appealing to a new subset of consumers. For example, vegans and vegetarians who choose to abstain from traditional leather products may find Modern Meadow an exciting, ethically sound alternative. The prospect of ditching cheap faux animal substitutes, which are often made of environmentally unfriendly materials, for biofabricated leather will satisfy many shoppers’ desires for style, ethics, and sustainability.
It’s uncertain whether Modern Meadow will reduce the global footprint of current leather practices overall. Lee predicts that the company’s biofabricated products will likely complement, rather than replace, existing materials. “I think it’s a misnomer for people to assume that a ‘new material’ that enters the market is going to immediately, overnight, replace something that has been around for decades, centuries, millennia,” she says. For example, “if you look at the 20th century, just because we invented nylon didn’t make all the other materials go away. That’s going to be the same for us.”
Modern Meadow isn’t the only company in hot pursuit of biofabricated leather. San Francisco-based startup Mycoworks, which raised its first round of funding last February, has also been working on a similar material using a mushroom substance called mycelium and other agricultural byproducts. In an even more bizarre application of technology, fashion designer Tina Gorjanc is even growing leather with the late Alexander McQueen’s DNA as part of a conceptual project.
Lee sees these prospective competitors as more partners in crime than possible threat. “What’s exciting for us is just seeing a growing landscape of companies that are starting to biofabricate much more environmentally friendly materials that have amazing properties and are better for people and the planet,” she says. “I mean, that’s why we’re all here.”