by Ivory King
The most eco-friendly clothes we wear are made from the same things humans have been wearing for millenia: naturally cultivated and hand-processed plant and animal textiles. The introduction of technology impacted clothing in the industrial revolution, scaling up production and introducing synthetics and chemical processes, most of which were less earth-friendly, if not toxic. But only recently have we been able to turn technology to the benefit of our health and sustainability.
While organics are the gold standard of sustainability, there are two caveats for leather. First of all, it is not as resource efficient as plant-based fiber - after all, you raise a crop to feed the animals, and then further reduce the animals to their skins. Second, when you scale production up to the levels required for our global systems, animals not only take a lot of resources to be fed and watered, but they create a huge amount of waste. The off-gas is a major contributor to climate change, and the other types of waste must be disposed of so they too do not become pollutants.
One company is creating leather without animals, using a bio-engineering technique that grows it in a lab. Zoa Bioleather is a product being developed by Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow. Collagen, the protein found in animal skin and other tissues, is engineered from DNA and combined with other materials, then molded into shape. Once the raw material is created, it can be tanned in an ecologically sound way just as many traditional leathers are.
Once this is perfected, leather production becomes a closed loop possibility: reduced resources, reduced pollutants, and additional shortcomings can be sidestepped. The cruelties inflicted on conventionally cultivated fur and leather animals is stomach turning, and this could be a thing of the past. And for those consumers who already don’t buy leather because of any of the above reasons, we would be free from having to choose petroleum-derived products that mimic the utility of leather but are still potentially toxic. In addition, many of these faux leathers do not age as well as their animal-based counterparts. Pleather does not get better with age, my friends.
Zoa, and lab-grown leather in general, offers cruelty- and pollutant-free alternatives that also have more design flexibility. It can be molded to appear like any number of “exotic” specialty leathers like lizard, where dozens of the small creatures are killed for a single garment. Bioleather can also be produced to specific dimensions so none goes to waste.
While leather is a material we have been used to, tech has also been used to harvest fiber from places we never have before. Though created in the late 1930s, it fell into obscurity after the invention of rayon and popularization of cotton during World War II. Since then, “soy silk” has become more widespread, mostly over the last 10 years. Also referred to as “vegetable cashmere,” it’s derived from the leavings of the food uses of soy, so it’s very sustainable, in addition to being very soft and easy to care for (machine washable).
Another source of fabric that you may not be familiar with is seaweed. Seacell, the fiber extracted from brown algae, creates another rayon-type fabric that supposedly has skin nourishing qualities because of its source. Those claims aside, it is created in a manufacturing process similar to lyocell, a sustainable type of bamboo fiber.
Knotted wrack Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons
While we’ve been using bamboo for sustainable home goods for ages, and have derived bamboo viscose in a chemically intensive process for some time as well, we now can finally enjoy organic bamboo clothing. Modal, or bamboo-based rayon fiber, is considered a semi-synthetic that while soft, is not manufactured in the cleanest of processes. But the current generation of organic lyocell, also known by its trademarked name Tencel, is strong, soft and created with non-toxic solvents. Much of it is made into bedsheets, but it can also be found in underwear form.
Bamboo grove, Photo credit: Alex Keda
These materials have yet to be mass-produced in a way that makes them easy to find in mainstream apparel. But these new processes for making animal-free leather and dresses from seaweed will be refined, streamlined and widely implemented - hopefully soon. Not only will it make for more possibilities in fashion, it’ll be better for humans, the planet, and the animals.
Cover image photo credit: Modern Meadow