In a 15-metre steel tank on the sunny coast of California, millions of microscopic organisms are having a feast. On the menu is a delectable soup of greenhouse gases, served with a side of fresh air. From this invisible meal, they’ll produce something called polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, a biodegradable plastic which will later be turned into a biomaterial known as AirCarbon. One of its primary uses? Making leather goods where no cow is harmed.
Working out how to conjure such a material from thin air was no easy feat. It took Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel, founders of Newlight Technologies, nearly two decades of trial and error to get to where they are today – namely, on the brink of permanently disrupting several industries with their creation. The brilliant thing about Newlight’s AirCarbon is that it uses waste gases – like the millions of tons of methane that is emitted by dairy farms, landfills and abandoned coal mines annually – as feed for the microorganisms. Forget carbon neutral: this material is carbon negative.
Pellets of Newlight Technologies’ AirCarbon and the leather – marketed under the name Covalent – made from them. Photo: Covalent
AirCarbon is already being used to produce leather goods under the brand name Covalent. The aesthetic is slick, minimalist and monochrome, and every piece – from classic totes to unisex phone sleeves – comes with its carbon footprint fully traceable via blockchain technology. If talk of bacteria and blockchains seems all too futuristic, get used to it: it’s a future that’s already here.
“Since Newlight uses methane as a food source for our microorganisms, our Covalent products are carbon negative and help reverse the flow of carbon in the environment,” says CEO Herrema, adding that Newlight is already working with several major fashion companies.
And methane isn’t the only waste product cleverly being turned into leather. Perhaps the most buzzed-about alternatives are the new breed of plant-based leathers made from food scraps: apple skins peeled away during commercial apple juice production, corn, cactus, pineapple … even discarded grapes from winemaking. Yes – you can now drink your wine and wear it too.
Mirco Scoccia is the founder and designer behind O2 Monde shoes. Photo: O2 Monde
Footwear brand O2 Monde works with a variety of these plant-based leathers. Founder and veteran shoe designer Mirco Scoccia says it’s hard to notice the difference: “All the materials are very durable – equal to or better than traditional leather. The look and feel are the same as leather: soft, breathable and perfect for each type of shoe from dress to casual.”
O2 Monde have made metallic-finish heels from Piñatex, a leather substitute derived from discarded pineapple leaves. Photo: O2 Monde
Indeed, among O2 Monde’s offerings, you’ll find everything from red carpet-ready metallic heels made from Piñatex (derived from discarded pineapple leaves) through to chunky hiking boots made from Desserto cactus leather.
Mashu’s Calliope bag is made from BioVeg vegan leather. Photo: Mashu
At vegan bag brand Mashu, covetable arm candy is born from the marriage of heritage Greek craftsmanship and low-impact plant-based leathers. “Our materials list continues to evolve and change because we’re always researching and creating with the new sustainable fibres within the industry,” says founder and creative director Ioanna Topouzoglou. “From inception, we have wanted to drive meaningful change in the fashion industry, and prove that style and sustainability can coexist harmoniously.”
When it comes to shopping for leather alternatives, Topouzoglou notes that vegan doesn’t necessarily equate to eco-friendly. “A lot of times vegan products, especially those with very low retail prices, will use materials like PU [polyurethane] or PVC which are low quality and not sustainable options,” she says. Her suggestion? Look for leathers made from waste products, and always check the less obvious parts of the product, such as linings: “I’d always start with materials, and if you can, then go on to look at the brand itself and how it operates.”
Greek brand Mashu works with a number of plant-based leathers. Photo: Mashu
It’s important to bear in mind that next-generation leather alternatives are still a work in progress too. Materials often need to be blended with synthetics, and not all are biodegradable. As Topouzoglou admits, there’s no such thing as a sustainable brand: “That doesn’t exist.” But with waste-derived leathers proving a clear winner over bovine ones in markers like animal welfare, carbon emissions, resource depletion, chemical use and water use, they’re the most promising solution we have so far.
Not fur real: 02 Monde’s vegan fur sandals. Photo: Handout
So, should we brace ourselves for an all-out revolution in wearable waste?
It seems the answer is yes. RethinkX, an economic disruption think tank, forecasts that leather produced from non-animal sources is likely to have a 90 per cent market share by 2030. This makes sense, given the change is both consumer – and industry – driven. In a survey by the Material Innovation Initiative (MII), 90 per cent of urban Chinese consumers said they prefer leather alternatives over their traditional counterparts. And MII’s “State of Industry” report notes that globally, investment in next-gen material innovation more than doubled from 2020 to 2021.
Demetra Gucci baskets. Photo: Gucci
Luxury fashion houses are taking note too. In 2021, Gucci revealed a new material called Demetra, an animal-free leather alternative that, according to the brand, contains at least 77 per cent plant-based raw materials (including wood pulp, though not waste-derived). Also last year, the world was introduced to the Hermès Victoria bag in mycelium, a mushroom leather made by growing fungi in trays of agricultural waste. If a brand like Hermès – as famed for its waiting lists as for its use of exotic animal skins – is dipping a toe into plant-based leathers, it’s a clear sign demand is there.
Dana Tote in Carbon Black. Photo: Covalent
Newlight Technologies, too, is expanding to meet the growing demand. “We recently announced plans to build our next and largest-scale production plant at another site in the US,” says Herrema. “This will enable us to deploy our technology on a larger scale to help reduce the use of animal leather while enabling companies to achieve their carbon reduction targets. We’re on a mission to catalyse the carbon transformation space, and we’re making progress towards increased scale every day.”
When taken alone, mushrooms and methane-munching microorganisms may not sound very glamorous. But in the right hands, they can be moulded into fashion pieces that combat a world crisis just as they solve a wardrobe one. And the industry is seeing the potential. The upshot of this is that vegan leather is no longer just for vegans: it’s for anyone and everyone that cherishes the idea of repurposing waste into something beautiful.
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