Welcome to the age of biofabrication – Leather made in the laboratory

Writer: Jennifer Marx
Editor: Isabella Boyne
Artist: Diggy Hill

In the Stone Age, leather was one of humanity’s most useful discoveries because of its ability to provide protection from harsh weather. A lot has changed in the production process and use of this versatile material. In the era of fast fashion, the pursuit of providing clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible, people have forgotten the impact that the production may have on the environment and the animal kingdom. Particularly the process of leather production has become harmful to the environment in recent years. Not only are natural ecosystems destroyed for the land needed to house and feed the cows but massive amounts of harsh chemicals, such as chrome, are used in the tanning process (a process that preserves leather). Leather is not just a waste product of killing animals for meat but a highly profitable by-product that leaves farmers with more profit generated from leather than from meat production. Therefore, it could be argued that buying leather is equivalent to supporting the meat industry.

Does this mean we should not buy any leather goods anymore? This is very unlikely to happen as leather is a crucial material in the fashion industry representing high quality products. As synthetic fabrics imitating leather could not replace it to date, other approaches must be considered. This is where new biotechnological advances come into play to revolutionise the fashion industry. Several start-up companies such as VitroLabs and Modern Meadow have developed new methods of growing leather without harming animals or the environment. VitroLabs uses advanced stem cell technology and 3D tissue engineering to create skin in the lab which can then be turned into leather: from a single biopsy of a healthy cow, isolated stem cells are set in an environment that allows them to reproduce on their own, indefinitely. This technology enables an infinite resource that, together with tissue engineering, can be used to produce sustainable leather goods. However, this approach is not entirely animal-free as cells used in this process are derived from cows.

The first-ever biofabricated material brand “ZOA” will be soon launched by Modern Meadow. After decades of research, the company has chosen to focus on the main component of leather – the protein collagen. Entirely animal-free, they have developed a process that turns commercial yeast into collagen-producing cell factories by editing their genome and fermentation. Collagen is then purified and assembled into fiber-like structures that resemble the core building blocks for their materials. Just like real leather, these grown materials are biodegradable. The company is also exploring different approaches to tan and treat the fabric for more durability using less harmful chemicals.

Biofabrication is still in its early stages but the potential of the technology is massive. Besides leather, VitroLabs is working on lab-grown pelts from stem cells. Engineered spider silk threads are already commercially produced by Bolt Threads. But are we ready for the alternatives? Clearly, biofabrication has many advantages over livestock production in terms of land, water usage and CO2 emissions but research and development requires a lot of time, capital and a network of fashion contacts in order to establish a sustainable and efficient manufacturing process. Nonetheless, these novel approaches are a way to still enjoy the beautiful materials that we have become accustomed to while simultaneously leaving a lighter footprint on the planet.

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