It’s time for a real fashion statement.
Last spring, lab-grown leather was fashion’s It-technology. The Cut reported on rumors that brands might have already paired up with Modern Meadow—a Brooklyn-based startup developing lab-grown leather and meat—to make petri-dish creations of leather molded to fit each designer’s vision. My head spiralled with dreams of mad scientist bags manufactured without slaughtering animals or destructive land use. They could be crafted to designers’ desired thickness or thinness with otherworldly shapes and textures. Dear God we could do away with the wastefulness of seams!
Modern Meadow said this could all be within its purview—eventually. Last year, GOOD even published a recipe by the company’s creative director for making your own lab-grown leather at home. But in all the excitement, the world seems to have forgotten how long, realistically, it would take for the faux hide to go mainstream. Although Co.Exist reported that we should be able to wear lab-grown leather before we eat a lab-grown burger, it could be decades before the test tube meat market takes off. (Though Modern Meadow’s business director, Sarah Sclarsic, confirmed to us that its lab-grown material should hit the market in two to three years.)
So beyond the pesky inherent difficulty of developing a groundbreaking technology, why do lab-grown animal products take so long to appear on clothing racks and the grocery shelves? For one thing, it’s expensive, and it doesn’t help that the animal tissue engineering market has been “orphaned by the scientific community at large,” as Fast Company put it. With the intense strain that livestock farming puts on land and resources there is an urgent need to make our agriculture more sustainable, but the budding field of animal biotechnology doesn’t have the same history or established institutions to back it as medical science does. Biotechnologist Isha Datar took the helm as CEO of New Harvest, a nonprofit that secures funding for lab-grown animal goods, for the expressed purpose of fixing the imbalance. Since 2013, she has raised funding from more than 350 individual private donors to innovate animal products.
For its part, Modern Meadow received $10 million in Series A funding, but it can’t rely on that money forever. “If their loop of production and profit doesn’t hum within a certain number of years, it may have implications for their ability to achieve some of their longer-range goals, including more sophisticated types of materials research and development,” Ben Wurgaft, a historian at MIT, told the Guardian. And while $10 million might sound like solid cash for your average Joe or Josephine walking around town, it isn’t much when compared to the $20 billion a year that U.S. taxpayers pay in agricultural subsidies. And like we said: This is a “groundbreaking technology,” and breaking new ground carries a massive price tag.
Modern Meadow will need enough money to sustain its research and development until its scientists emerge to say: “Voila! We’ve made believable, supple leather.” But in 2014, after touching the company’s then-latest product, UK Leather Federation director Kerry Senior told the Guardian, “It felt like cling film. I don’t think they have anything that would be a useful substitute for leather.” Even scientific breakthroughs are beholden to good, old-fashioned concerns like bad PR and funding crises.
Then even if the company manages to create a convincing alternative, the fashion industry is notoriously fickle, and lab-grown leather could look so 2018 by the 2020s. But fashion designers should use all the powers of their imagination to make the leather look desirable. They might also choose to embrace the strange, new possibilities introduced by lab-grown materials instead of trying to shoehorn it into our fixed ideas of what leather should feel like. Motherboard has reported that London designer Amy Congdon has already experimented with hybrid fabrics in the lab, including leather and other textiles, to create fibers that transcend what’s found in nature.
Once these innovations hit the market, we as consumers and citizens should thoughtfully put our money where our mouths—and jackets and bags—are to make our insatiable first world appetites for food and fashion more sustainable. And with the historic signing of the Paris Agreement last Friday, in which almost 200 countries committed to curbing the global rise in temperatures by reducing their emissions, there really couldn’t be a better time for a renewed push to develop these animal product alternatives. Regardless of any of the PeTA-style ethical arguments for scrapping factory farms, raising livestock takes an extreme toll on the environment.
In 2006, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published a study called Livestock’s Long Shadow for the purpose of alerting “both the technical and the general public to the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity.” And while the FAO didn’t hang climate change on the animal farming industry, its tone was harsh: “This is not done simpy to blame the rapidly growing and intensifying global livestock sector for severely damaging the environment but to encourage decisive measures at the technical and poltical levels for mitigating such damage.”
A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 2013 further laid out the numerical cost of what it takes to raise livestock across the globe, and the amount of biomass, land and energy it takes to feed and clothe the planet is terrifying. But in addition to bags-by-science, more developments are being made to synthesize cow-based products—without the cows! Popular Science recently reported that labs around the world have been working on lab-grown insulin, meat, milk, cartilage, collagen and, yes, leather. If governments across the world are really serious about keeping the Earth’s temperature from raising 2 more degrees celsius, they’re going to have to confront one of the biggest global polluters in the process.
So while Modern Meadow keeps trudging away on the guilt-free future of apparel, our next favorite item on the lab-grown product wishlist is animal-free gelatin, which is currenlty being made from microbes by the San Francisco startup Gelzen. Company co-founder Alex Lorestani said in an interview, “We make gelatin from scratch by programming microbes to build it for us,” adding that, “We have taken the machinery that builds collagen in animals, and moved it into microbes. These microbes can produce animal-free gelatin at massive scales. Building gelatin from scratch also eliminates the risk of pathogens that can be transmitted from animal material to humans, greatly improves the efficiency of protein production by using fewer land and water inputs, and allows us to precisely engineer its key properties like stiffness.”
In an ideal world we could soon be storing our hand lotion made with lab-grown gelatin in our lab-grown leather tote bags, but that means Modern Meadows et al will have to go from being the hot goss on fashion blogs to runway-sanctioned success stories a lot sooner than a decade from now. It’s going to take time, but when it comes to helping save the world, that’s unfortunately the one thing we don’t have.