Leather products are undeniably fashionable as well as they are durable, but have become an unconscientious choice for many people. Though there are vegan alternatives to leather available in the market, they do not offer the quality of natural tanned leather products, and neither they are of any good to the environment. This is where a company called Modern Meadows enters the scene with its product name Zoa. Zoa is a biologically produced, ethical and environment-friendly alternative to leather which is based on bovine collagen.
How Leather is Made Traditionally?
The leather we use as products is basically the collagen protein which gives its characteristic durability and texture. The conventional leather making process involves stripping the animal skin of all the extra fat material, hair, proteins and other natural oils (basically everything that isn’t collagen). A long process indeed, and also one that creates a lot of waste.
The Leather Industry Generates Huge Wastes
Approximately one tonne of hide or skin is responsible for creating 20 to 80 m3 of turbid and foul-smelling wastewater, including chromium levels of 100–400 mg/L, sulfide levels of 200–800 mg/L and high levels of fat and other solid wastes, as well as notable pathogen contamination. Pesticides are also often added for hide conservation during transport. With solid wastes representing up to 70% of the wet weight of the original hides, the tanning process comes at a considerable strain on water treatment installations.
Tanning is especially polluting in countries with lax environmental norms, such as in India – the world’s 3rd largest producer and exporter of leather. In Kanpur, the self-proclaimed “Leather City of World” and a population of 3 million people on the banks of the river Ganges, pollution levels were so high that, despite an industry crisis, the pollution control board has decided to seal 49 high-polluting tanneries out of 404 in July 2009. This year too, several tanneries were shut down, and considering the pollution levels, the government is also planning to relocate many of them.
Artificial leather (or leatherette) too isn’t devoid of the ways it adversely affects the environment. The synthesis of PVC used in the production of many artificial leathers requires a plasticizer called a phthalate to make it flexible and soft. PVC requires petroleum and large amounts of energy thus making it reliant on fossil fuels. During the production process carcinogenic byproducts, dioxins, are produced which are toxic to humans and animals. Dioxins remain in the environment long after PVC is manufactured. Moreover, when PVC ends up in a landfill it does not decompose like genuine leather and can release dangerous chemicals into the water and soil.
How Modern Meadows Creates Leather?
Modern Meadow uses genetically engineered yeast to produce collagen, which is then processed into sheets of leather that can be tanned much akin to the ones that come from cattle. However it wasn’t an easy task to achieve the final product.
How it all began?
says Andras Forgacs, CEO Modern Meadows
The founders of Modern Meadows – CEO Andras Forgacs and his father and chief scientific officer Gabor Forgacs – first began as a company called Organavo to grow human tissue for pharmaceutical research. Then they moved on to engineering animal tissue, as it seemed to be the next logical thing to do, says Andras. The father-son duo started Modern Meadows in 2011, with the aim of growing leather and eventually venturing into meat using tissue culture.
The deciding factor for the founders for choosing leather over meat was the price to quantity ratio. Earlier when Organavo had to grow tiny amounts of human tissue for medical purposes, it could then sell them for high prices. But for meat, they had to grow many thousand times more of animal tissue, at a much lesser price per unit weight. So, considering all the costs of development, leather had a good price to quantity ratio and seemed like a more feasible choice.
Modern Meadow initially tried to grow cow skin cells for leather much like how it grew cow muscle cells for meat. Mammalian cells are very particular, however, in their requirement for a specific and nutrient-rich medium. The company had two problems to counter :
- The medium required to grow the cells includes serum extracted from unborn calves, thus negating any animal-free promises; and
- All kinds of unwanted bacteria and yeast will grow in a nutrient-rich medium, requiring expensive equipment to maintain sterility.
David Williamson, the company’s Chief Technical Officer then decided to use yeast sans the mammalian cells to grow collagen for the leather. “Yeasts are the things you worry about contaminating your mammalian tissues,” says Williamson. And the wide use of yeast to manufacture molecules of interest—alcohol for beer and wine, was an added advantage. For instance, there is plenty of ready-made industrial-scale equipment tailored to yeast fermentation.
The next challenge to overcome, is getting yeast to make bovine collagen. It’s easy enough to splice genes from another species into the microscopic creatures. Scientists have been doing this for decades, and it’s how pharmaceutical companies use vats of yeast to make human insulin. But yeasts do not spit out collagen that automatically assembles into sheets of leather. Williamson’s team had to add two other genes for enzymes that help modify the collagen’s molecular structure, and then using another process Modern Meadow forms it into sheets of rawhide. The rawhide can be tanned similar to the stuff that comes from cattle.
Williamson calls traditional leather making a top-down process. You start with a cattle skin, strip off the fat and hair, cut out imperfections, and work around parts of the skin that are thinner or weaker than others. At Modern Meadow, he says, “we’re doing bottom-up assembly.” By tweaking the collagen network, the team can make leather whose size is not limited by the physical size of cattle, or more tear resistant, or impossibly thin. The molecular structure of collagen could also be tinkered with, for emulating different animal skin textures, or optimising it for a specific purpose.
The Future of Animal-free Products
Modern meadow uses genetic engineering to introduce a radical way of producing leather, that is unreliant on traditional agriculture. Engineered yeasts have long been used in the production of drugs like insulin, but recently—and perhaps more surprisingly, given the debate over genetic engineering—setting foot into the world of luxury goods: spider silk, perfume, and now leather.
Modern Meadow publicly unveiled its “leather” in the form of a “reimagined” graphic T-shirt at a fashion exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The company employs a chief creative officer as well as a professional tanner, meticulously trying to carve itself a niche in the sea of the market it aims at. Modern Meadow doesn’t just want to imitate leather, the company keeps reiterating; it wants to reimagine leather, transcending the physical limits of the animal source. Williamson promises that the T-shirt “will change the way you think about leather”.
As part of its entry into the world of fashion, Modern Meadow is quick to tout its design credentials. Williamson points out that his scientists work hand in hand with the company’s designers, led by chief creative officer Suzanne Lee, who has experimented with making clothing from kombucha. Forgacs says the company is also seeking to partner with several brands.
The leather industry too, has its curious but reserved opinions. Steven Lange, director of the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, asks to keep the bigger picture in mind: “You don’t want to lose sight of the fact we’re dealing with a waste byproduct of the food industry.” To put in other words, the demand for meat and milk is what drives the supply of leather.
The production of meat and leather have been a connected affair for long, for good reason. Modern Meadow did initially start with two goals in mind : meat and leather, which could have very much answered the question. How is the company going to cope in the market where they produce something which exists as a byproduct? How does the company plan to exist in a world where apart from the leather people want the rest of the animal too?
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