Leather has always played a huge role in the fashion industry. Yet, its production process has been subject to environmental and social critiques associated with animal welfare and contamination of water bodies, in spite of how the process has been evolving throughout the years. We explore the new front of lab-grown leather to answer the question of whether this product can actually reduce the detrimental environmental impact of leather production.
During Industrialisation, the shift from using natural tannins to chrome salt has shortened the time for tanning – the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather – from months to days. Start-up companies have now developed new technologies to grow leather in laboratories. Lab-grown leather appears to be a solution to the aforementioned environmental and social concerns. But how is it manufactured and how is this bio-fabricated material any different from conventionally manufactured leather?
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How Is Traditional Leather Produced?
Turning raw animal hides into leather is not an easy task. It starts by slaughtering animals – mostly cows – to obtain fresh raw hides which are then salted for dehydration to prevent decaying during transportation from the slaughterhouse. The salted hides then go through a series of chemical and enzyme “baths”, fleshing, trimming, and shaving – a process also known as tanning. Upon the completion of tanning, the finished leather can then be further processed into a wide range of products such as footwear, upholstery for sofas, and clothing just to name a few.
Tanning is a chemical and extremely water-intensive process. A study assessing the life cycle of bovine leather production of two product systems in Spain and Italy quantified the environmental impact driven by the whole leather production process. Despite the differences in the assessment of the two different product systems, their total environmental burdens appeared quite similar. The research found that tanning contributes between 70% to 90% to pollution by ways of energy consumption, abiotic resource depletion potential, photochemical oxidant creation potential (POCP), and fresh aquatic ecotoxicity potential.
Effluent from tannery factories contains a complex mixture of harmful organic and inorganic chemicals such as chromium salt, acids and bases, fat liquor as well as organic tannins. Improperly managed effluent may cause a significant environmental impact on surrounding human populations and living organisms.
How Is Lab-grown Leather Produced?
Leather is well-known for its comfort and durable properties. Although there are many alternative materials for leather, this still holds a unique position in the market, particularly in luxury products. Unlike artificial or synthetic leather, this bio-fabricated leather retains the texture and even the smell of real leather from a cow.
The sources of raw materials and technologies to synthesise leather are highly diverse. For example, one company is working on cultivating animal stem cells in the lab to produce actual animal hides. The process begins with collecting skin cells from a living animal and transporting them to the specialised bioreactor. Here, the cells are replicated to produce leather. The entire process takes about two weeks to complete, significantly less than the time required to manufacture conventional leather, which can take years if we take into account the time needed for animals to grow.
A London-based company has also developed innovative systems to produce animal-free leather. They utilise microorganisms, terrestrial and marine bacteria, or fungus strains to produce bio-fabricated materials that mimic the leather textures. These microorganisms are fed with a variety of materials such as plant-based protein, agricultural and forestry by-products, sawdust, protein from fish waste, or even air and greenhouse gas. Given that the component of bio-fabricated materials is less complex than actual rawhide (a combination of fats and hair, etc.), this helps simplify the tanning process to reduce material use and the environmental impact from chemical extraction.
Another company also demonstrated its consideration of the product life cycle by conducting a cradle-to-gate Lyfe-cycle Assessment (LCA) on its bio-fabricated leather. The manufacturing process shows significant improvement in greenhouse gas emission, land use changes, blue water consumption, and eutrophication compared to the conventional chrome-tanned leather process.
These bio-fabricated materials received increased attention from different industries including footwear, automotive, and luxury brands. Some of them partner with brands to commercialise the material for manufacturing new products, from mycelium-made sneakers and yoga mats to mushroom and cactus car seats, and some are even funded to build pilot or commercial production plants.
Is Lab-grown Leather the Solution?
Lab-grown leather helps streamline the tanning process and reduce material consumption during leather manufacturing. It may perhaps be an alternative to traditional leather in the consumer goods industry, especially to the growing market of vegan or animal-free products. These newly invented materials, however, should take the product’s life cycle into design consideration and be aware of the environmental impact aroused by their manufacturing process, product use, as well as end-of-life stage.
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