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Green Is The New Black

Beyond Animal Leather: Kering’s Investment In Vitrolabs & An Overview of Sustainable Leather

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sustainable leather green is the new black

Last week, we found out that Gucci-parent luxury giant Kering is investing in VitroLabs, a biotech startup creating low-impact lab-grown leather alternatives. What does this mean for the future of sustainable leather?  

So VitroLabs recently raised $46 million to build and scale the world’s first pilot production of cell-cultivated leather. And the most beloved brands like Kering (global luxury group managing brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega, etc), Agronomics (a venture capital firm focusing on cellular agriculture), Regeneration VC (retail-focused climate venture capital), and Leonardo DiCaprio are some of its top investors:

 

Vitrolabs has developed a technique and capacity to replicate cow-skin cells in a lab. And because they’re artificially grown, the tanning and finishing process is much more simplified, hence less toxic. VitroLabs’ Co-Founder and stem cell scientist Dr. Dusko Ilic shares: “Over the last two years, we have been laser-focused on pushing our tissue engineering platform in order to increase efficiency and to optimize tissue production to obtain the look, feel, and performance of traditional leather at scale.”

“With several major breakthroughs in the areas of bioreactor design, bioprocess and facility design, and cell culture development, we are now on our way to a scalable process that delivers the desired premium qualities, forging a path towards the ultimate goal of industrialization.”

Kering, in addition to funding, is also supporting product quality testing, tanning, and finishing. While cell-based leather has been tested across startups and companies, this would be the first time it’s being scaled up. That’s significant, it could potentially change where we get our leather from to a large enough (and affordable enough) reach!

If you’re wearing leather shoes, belts, or jackets, there’s a high chance that they were made from cowhide that contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. And if you happen to be wearing “alternate” or “fake leather”, it’s likely that yours is made from petroleum products and has plastic in it. Sustainable leather can be confusing—what’s the right kind?

The problem with animal leather 

Leather’s bad reputation has deep roots in history. One of the first times it frighteningly altered ecosystems was shortly after 1870 when innovations in leather tanning made bison hides usable as industrial belts (the ones used to spin wheels/pulleys in factories). Almost instantly, the bison population began to collapse.

Since then, the role of leather in our lives has grown for both functional and fashionable purposes. Leather production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, harmful chemical pollution, and negative health impacts for workers and surrounding communities. While countries like Bangladesh are drowning in sickness and substances from toxic leather tanneries, countries like Portugal, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain are imposing unilateral bans on terms such as “vegan leather” (Feb 2022) used to describe anything not made from animal skins (they say it’s “misleading” and “technically incorrect”). They’ve quite literally made sustainable leather communication illegal.

 

sustainable leather green is the new black

Image: via Ranurte on Unsplash | Image description: Several differently coloured and textured pieces of leather are stacked on top of each other.

The tannery industry creates waste that includes at least 20 types of toxic substances, including sulfuric acid, hydrogen sulfide, chromium sulfate, and several heavy metals. The health implications of regular contact with high concentrations of these substances affect not just the Bangladeshi workers but also about 180,000 people living in the densely-populated area. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the health effects of the leather tanneries found that residents in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh reported 31 percent more cases of skin diseases, 21 percent more cases of jaundice, and 17 percent more cases of kidney-related disease compared to the residents in a comparable neighborhood situated farther away from the tanneries. There’s a word for this crippling injustice: sacrifice zones.

Isn’t leather a positive use of a cattle byproduct that would otherwise go to waste?

You might have heard the pro-animal leather argument that leather is simply a byproduct of the emissions-heavy meat and dairy industries. Given how much revenue the industry produces, however, it would be more accurate to call it a co-product: it creates vast emissions due to tanning, dyeing, and other finishing processes. Per square metre of material produced, 17 kilograms of carbon emissions (excluding animal agriculture emissions) are released.

Now that we’ve ruled out traditional animal leather, let’s take a closer look at some alternative materials.

sustainable leather green is the new black

IMAGE: via Redbubble | Image description: An edited meme of the pensive face emoji, including exaggerated eyelashes and hands wearing black fabric, with long fingernails. The text below the emoji reads “Material Gworl” in cursive font. 

Current-generation leather, the affordable but not-so-sustainable:  

Currently, the majority of vegan leather is made from polyurethane—a plastic derived from fossil fuels, which of course has its own environmental problems. The result is a blended material than can neither be recycled (like plastic) nor composted (like a fully bio-based material could be). The end of life for alternative materials is either landfill or incineration. But of course, manufacturing bovine leather is relatively far worse for the environment than any other type of fabric—even plastic-based leathers.

 

sustainable leather green is the new black

Image: via Piñatex
Pineapple leather

Piñatex has a leather-like quality from its cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves. Piñatex is a more eco-friendly alternative to PU and PVC, which are plastic and petroleum-based alternatives widely used in animal-free products. It is, however, still mixed with polylactic acid and a petroleum-based resin, which makes the end-product non-biodegradable. But of course, manufacturing bovine leather is relatively far worse for the environment than any other type of fabric—even plant- or plastic-based leather. So this is a decent option if you’re leather shopping.

 

sustainable leather green is the new black

Image: via Desserto
Cactus leather

Desserto Leather is made from a species of cacti called “prickly pears” which require very little water to grow and can survive harsh climate. The cactus-based organic material is naturally tanned and possesses all the features and functionalities of animal leather at a fraction of the environmental cost. The downside? Two researchers, Dr. Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz, uncovered that Desserto leather’s main ingredient is actually plastic polyurethane (65%), as specified in their materials database. The cactus only makes up 30% of the material by weight. It is said to be “partly biodegradable” in its marketing. “In reality, there is no such thing as a material being partly biodegradable: either the whole material is biodegradable, or it isn’t,” Dr. Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz said. (For more details and tips on how to see through marketing claims, read their full piece here.)

 

sustainable leather green is the new black

Image: via Mylo 

Next-generation leather, the material revolution:

These substitutes are different from current-gen replacements or plastic-based leather, which are still produced using fossil fuels…

Lab-grown leather

In a world where we need to significantly reduce animal-based leather on the one hand, and plant-based leather on the other, lab-grown leather is disruptive and radical. With lab-grown leather, scaling up can always introduce more issues. To be able to eventually replace traditional animal-based leather, the scale needs to go up and the price needs to come down so that it’s made as affordable for everyone. 

As we’ve covered, earlier, French-based luxury fashion corporation Kering announced it has backed San Francisco’s VitroLabs for growing highly scalable, cultivated leather that is environmentally superior. It remains to be seen whether lab-grown leather has less environmental impact than current generation leather. However, the startup views what it is doing as inherently separate from the slew of plant-based leather alternatives, and we’re super excited by the possibilities. 

Mushroom leather

A lot of people are entering this space but their main approach is taking fibres and embedding them in plastic, which results in a low-quality material like ‘pleather.’ Mycelium leather startups MycoWorks and BoltThreads are some of the strongest rivals of the original’s quality, durability and safety. “When you touch our material, you get the same feeling as when you’re touching a natural leather,” says Jamie Bainbridge, Bolt Threads’ VP of product development, “If nobody told you whether it was leather or not, you would sit there and try to decide if it was.” 

The appearance resembles cowhide but is made from the tops of Phellinus ellipsoideus mushrooms, which are naturally tanned to give their leather-like look. It is biodegradable and generates a fraction of the environmental footprint compared to conventional cow’s leather. However, mushroom-based leather is currently only available as a luxury item and is rather expensive. For the material to be a truly sustainable option, it would need to be accessible at a lower price point. As a consumer, you’d also want to ask: can mushroom leather companies supply independent artisans with enough material to create products that uphold their traditional craftsmanship and livelihoods?

sustainable leather green is the new black

Image: via Pexels

Can mushroom leather change the way we perceive, wear, and engage with fashion?

“We have been trained as consumers to think in terms of a straight line whereby we buy something, use it, and throw it away. Fungi can inform thinking about fashion on lots of levels. This is about material innovation, but it’s also about the culture of making endless new things, and what we can learn from thinking in terms of nature and of cycles instead,” – Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Lives: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, to the Guardian.

No single solution will offer the key to emissions reduction on its own. As Slow Factory puts it, “We need a combination of responsibly produced leather at significantly smaller volumes and systemic change.” Synthetic leather’s production feeds the fossil-fuel industry, which is currently investing billions into new plastic production facilities. Since an industry-wide switch to new-gen leather isn’t possible yet, alongside investments in alternative leather, robust legislation (and the budget for enforcement) for transparency of supply chains of animal leather needs to act as assurance systems.

If you’re working for a fashion company or know someone who does, urge them to take action to increase supply chain transparency through the #SupplyChange campaign. Incidentally, Brazil exports 80% of the cowhides it produces – and so fashion companies around the world are in a unique position to disrupt this destructive supply chain by:

1. Stop buying leather from suppliers who cannot prove full traceability back to the birth farm of the cattle.
2. Support legislation that requires the cattle industry to provide full traceability by contacting us to add your company to the below letter.
3. Make a public commitment to the above, to eliminate all deforestation from your products now. Communicate and enforce these policies with suppliers, industry, government, and the general public.

Add yourself as a signatory here.

FEATURED IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Photo of a person in a red leather jacket and red crop top, standing in a field, raising both arms.

 

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