Can leather be made in a lab? Even just a few years ago, this notion seemed completely implausible to most people. Leather, which traditionally comes from cows that are raised and slaughtered in factory farms overseas, has long been the target of animal rights groups and environmentalists alike. Besides the obvious animal cruelty involved in the leather industry, it has a deleterious effect on the planet. One-third of leather ends up in landfills, and animal agriculture–the main source for leather–produces one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Thus far, the solution to this cruel industry has been vegan leather, which is completely man-made and animal-free. But faux leather has its own set of issues: most of it is made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a synthetic material that contains chemicals like phthalates. Moreover, this material hasn’t been regarded as an attractive alternative to real leather in terms of quality and durability, so the small subset of people purchasing the fake stuff has largely been limited to vegans.
As ethical vegans who are also #TeamEarth, we’re faced with two not-great options–real leather (and all of its problems) or fake leather, the majority of which doesn’t biodegrade or hold up for very long. Most of us get by with what’s already in our closets (the most sustainable option), but eventually, some staples need to be replaced. What to do?
Thankfully, we now have a solution, and it’s grown in a laboratory. Modern Meadow, a biotech company based in New Jersey, has developed an animal-free bioleather called Zoa. To make Zoa, scientists edit the DNA in a strain of yeast so that it produces collagen–the main component of animal leather–which grows to become fibrous, eventually forming a material that has the look, feel, and even smell of animal leather. According to Andras Forcas, one of the company’s co-founders, “At a biological level, it’s definitely leather, but it’s also about exploring new design, new performance, and new functionality.” New design indeed. Zoa can be tailored to accommodate different aesthetic needs; they can design it to be stretchy, thick, thin, textured or glossy.
Zoa is superior to animal leather in other ways. Unlike the traditional tanning process, which involves chemically treating animal flesh to protect against decay, Modern Meadow uses fewer chemicals and less water and energy (and zero cruelty) to achieve the same result. The entire process takes two weeks, which makes this innovative bioleather efficient and scalable.
Last fall, Modern Meadow debuted Zoa at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As part of an exhibit on the future of fashion, the company showcased a t-shirt that featured a pattern of cotton, mesh, and “liquid leather,” a version of Zoa that can simply be poured on fabric without sewing or additional assembly.
According to the company’s website, we might be seeing Zoa on the market as early as this year. It’s a beautiful thing when science and industry can come together for a common good, and it’s even more exciting to see them unite over an innovation that’s cruelty-free and sustainable to boot.
What are your thoughts on lab-grown leather?
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