Growing leather in a lab resolves animal issues, but what about the environmental effects of tanning?
Leather is a controversial material, to say the least. Vegans view it with disgust, the skin of a murdered animal. Others point out that it’s a byproduct of the meat industry, so its use does not actually result in additional deaths; they argue it’s better to use the skin than let it to go to waste. Then there are the leather fans who prize its softness, its patina, its durability, and the fact that it can biodegrade, unlike synthetic vegan leathers.
Now another type of leather has entered the game – lab-grown leather made by a company called Modern Meadow. Modern Meadow wants people to think of its product as something that’s altogether different, “a new material in its own right.” The product will look and feel like real leather, but with significant differences.As explained in The Economist, lab-grown leather is made in sheets with straight edges, which reduces waste compared to using irregularly-shaped animal hides. It promises consistent quality and appearance: “It is devoid of the scars, marks and other defects to which real skin is inevitably prone.” The same sheet of leather can be given different qualities and textures, depending on its use. For example, “one area might, for instance, be made stiff while another is made soft.”
Modern Meadow explains the leather-making process in some detail, but the company’s ultimate goal is to produce only collagen in central facilities, then allow local factories and tanneries to finish the job with tanning and dyeing.
There is, however, no satisfactory explanation for how it is processed and whether the use of caustic chemicals such as chromium can be reduced. Modern Meadow’s website only states vaguely, “Our materials are finished in an environmentally, reduced tanning process.” Tanning is a huge environmental problem that plagues countries like India, where children in leather-producing regions are born with higher than usual rates of birth defects. (Watch fashion documentary “The True Cost” for more on that.) Unless this ugly side of leather production is addressed, it’s hard to get overly excited about lab-grown skins.
Modern Meadow’s operations have ramped up impressively over the five years since TreeHugger’s editor Melissa first mentioned the project and the significant funding the company received from PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s foundation in 2012. In recent months, the company has moved its 60 staff from Brooklyn to a laboratory in Nutley, New Jersey, where production trials are set to begin. They have an important deadline to meet; the first public debut of a lab-grown leather T-shirt will take place at a fashion show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on October 1st.