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Could Microorganisms Make Your Next (Alt) Leather Handbag?

After decades of wreaking havoc on the planet, fashion is looking to right its wrongs—and quickly.

Material innovations have accelerated in recent seasons, from recycled PET made from post-consumer plastics to footwear foams made from algae. Leathers traditionally made from the hides of cattle have been replaced with produce, from pineapple leaves to apple skins, and garments have been pulled apart, re-sewn, and sold as wholly different styles.

Now, a newly launched accessories brand has taken the search for leather alternatives to the lab—and emerged with a carbon-negative, and fully regenerative, solution.

According to Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight Technology, an Irvine, Calif.-based material innovation lab, the company’s new label, Covalent, harnesses the power of a substance made in the bellies of ocean microorganisms.

The material, dubbed AirCarbon, “has a similar look to leather, but with a really nice matte finish and hand,” he said. “It feels like a tough, sturdy leather, and gets more supple over time with use.”

The Penrose clutch handbag.
The Penrose clutch handbag. Covalent

The highly scientific process of creating the material, which is used on a variety of stylish handbags, phone cases, wallets, and eyewear, begins with the collection of microorganisms derived from the ocean, he said. The lab has developed an environment that “recreates ocean conditions on land” using salt water, air and carbon from greenhouse gas, along with renewable power.

The microorganisms feed on the elements, all the while growing a new material inside of their cells. The compound that results from their feasting is an ocean-degradable, carbon-negative biopolymer (or naturally occurring plastic) called PHB—which Newlight has renamed, more palatably, AirCarbon.

Once produced, the material is isolated and purified into a fine white powder, Herrema said, and is melted into fibers, sheets, and shapes as a replacement for plastic and leather.

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AirCarbon is both strong and durable, lending itself to use on totes and wallets that see regular wear and tear. The material was initially developed to be molded into ultra-strong shapes, much like a typical plastic, making eyewear a natural fit. Covalent conceived of the material as a replacement for plastic in sunglasses, which are now offered within the line’s range of non-leather goods.

The Poppy tote handbag.
The Poppy tote handbag. Covalent

Like many lightbulb moments, “the pathway to AirCarbon Non-Leather was actually by accident at first,” Herrema said. In crafting the glasses, the Covalent team developed a curiosity about the behavior of the material’s thin trimmings. “We thought, ‘What if this could be used to make a wallet?’” Herrema said, before stitching together a “super crude” mock-up.

Noticing in that moment the compound’s leather-like qualities, product developers set out on a multi-year mission to optimize its behavior before bringing it to market. “Today it has a really nice combination of strength, flexibility, and carbon-negativity,” Herrema added. Covalent continues to experiment, though, hoping to bring about more supple variations for other product categories.

And, as a means of increasing transparency for concerned consumers, Covalent shares the specific negative carbon footprint of each product it makes, verified through third-party carbon accounting firms available for review. Each product is emblazoned with a unique timestamp that indicates the time that the different elements of AirCarbon were converted into the material to make it.

Consumers can enter their “Carbon Date” into the Covalent website and access a full, IBM-powered blockchain with the history of the product.

Products are available on, and range from $110 for a smartphone cover to $500 for a tote handbag.