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Modern Meadow’s Plant-Based Leather Offers Climate Advantages

One of the O.G.s of the biofabricated leather industry is backing up its sustainability claims with some impressive numbers, even though it believes there is room for improvement.

In a peer-reviewed study published Wednesday, Modern Meadow sustainability lead Rebecca Locker and environmental data scientist Ranjani Theregowda reported that Bioleather1 (BL1), a class of “next-generation” cowhide alternatives, is “significantly” less environmentally harmful than its bovine and pleather counterparts.

According to a life-cycle analysis they conducted, BL1 emitted 80 percent less greenhouse-gas emissions than traditional leather and 20 percent less than a polyurethane-based synthetic alternative, the basis for most “vegan” leather on the market. Compared with a chrome-tanned version made with cows, BL1 reduced blue water consumption, land use and eutrophication by more than 95 percent on a square-meter basis. Pleather had “somewhat” of an advantage over BL1, however, because the latter’s bio-based inputs rely on agriculture resources, a detail that Modern Meadow said highlights the need to carefully select and responsibly source its feedstocks.

The New Jersey-based company creates BL1 by tapping its so-called Bio-Alloy platform to fuse bio-based polymers with plant proteins on a molecular level. Dyes are “anchored” at this stage, eliminating excess colorants and dye effluent. Like assembling a sandwich, Modern Meadow builds up the material in a series of layers. Everything is laminated together with an adhesive, brushed over with a topcoat and supported by a textile backing.

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The precise ingredients depend on the performance criteria that the final product needs to meet. The proteins, for instance, can originate from soy or pea, while the backing can incorporate conventional nylon, recycled polyester or a man-made cellulosic such as viscose or Tencel. The study runs through several different combinations, or “scenarios,” that model the different impacts each decision can trigger.

“This type of analysis is super-important especially when you don’t have years and years of data,” David Williamson, Modern Meadow’s chief science and technology officer, told Sourcing Journal. “We can look for hotspots or opportunities where we might make a different choice in terms of material composition or performance that gives us a better sustainability profile.”

Depending on the construction, BL1 can hit 80 percent bio-based content, a feat comparable with Bolt Threads’ mycelium-derived Mylo “unleather,” which is currently certified as 60 percent to 85 percent bio-based under the German DIN-Geprüft standard, but not as au naturel as MycoWorks’ Fine Mycelium cowhide alternative, which the company says doesn’t require the use of petrochemicals during processing or finishing,

In the case of some of BL1’s components, the industry “just hasn’t advanced enough” to dispense with fossil fuels entirely, though Modern Meadow is “very interested in continuing to pursue innovations that will allow us to address this,” Williamson said. The topcoat Modern Meadow uses consists of conventional polyurethane, while its adhesive is derived from polyester-based polyurethane. Even the bio-based polyurethane it employs has limitations, comprising 50 percent canola oil and 50 percent petrochemicals.

Williamson acknowledges the criticism some plant-based leathers have garnered for packing plastic. It’s true that BL1 isn’t quite Zoa, which Modern Meadow touted several years ago after engineering a strain of yeast that pumped out collagen through fermentation. It’s also a far cry from the company’s first experiments with growing cow skin cells to make leather. What it is, however, is the firm’s most market-ready material at present, he said.

Modern Meadow
To create its biofabricated leather, Modern Meadow fuses bio-based polymers with plant proteins on a molecular level.

“We’ve long wrestled with the importance of meeting material performance requirements,” Williamson said. “As much as people will express interest in adopting a new material, if that material doesn’t have the performance criteria that they’re used to, adoption will be slow or limited. So in this material, I think we [have something] that performs very well in terms of abrasion, tear resistance and can match up with the best of both traditional leather and the traditional synthetics that are out there. And that might be a characteristic that we think we win out in the marketplace relative to some of the other emerging materials.”

Zoa, not entirely on ice, remains an aspirational “North Star” that the firm continues to work toward, Williamson added. Right now, Modern Meadow is working to respond to the mounting urgency around decarbonization and irrigation reduction in the fashion supply chain. It also wants to meet the growing consumer-level traction for cruelty-free clothing and footwear that puts less pressure on the planet. Already, brands such as Lululemon, which made two Mylo-derived bags available for sale this week, are embracing the zeitgeist. From Ganni to Gucci, demand for next-gen materials is at an all-time high.

“That’s where scalability matters,” he said. “Because you can be the most sustainable material in the world, but if your performance is not great, and your scalability is challenged, it’s really going to affect adoption and incorporation.”

But BL1, which he said will “evolve and grow” over time, isn’t Modern Meadow’s hero product. That would be Bio-tex, an offshoot formulation made with U.S. non-GMO soy that the company and luxury textiles producer Limonta are working to commercialize through a joint venture called BioFabbrica. Their facility in northern Italy can churn out between 300 to 450 linear meters of Bio-tex a day. Modern Meadow is speaking with a number of brands about a collaboration to commercialize the material. Details are still hush-hush but more will be revealed in the spring, Williamson said.

“What we’re seeing is people are excited by the materials,” he said. “They’re excited by the availability of the materials that comes with scalability, as well as the ability to work with the material in a drop-in fashion on their own.” Cost-wise, he is “quite comfortable” with being competitive with existing materials, both traditional or otherwise, that match the same look, feel and performance.

One of the reasons Modern Meadow is leaning into the Bio-tex name is because it sidesteps some of the debate over what makes a leather. Portugal, for instance, recently barred the use of the word “leather” to describe a product that isn’t derived from animals. Belgium, France, Italy and Spain have passed similar decrees that make terms such as “vegan leather” or “synthetic leather” verboten.

Still, traditional leather and next-gen materials such as Bio-tex don’t have to be at odds, Williamson said. Rather, they can “happily coexist” together. The leather industry, he noted, has done “a lot of work from a sustainability perspective,” too.

“It’s just another option—that’s how I think about it,” Williamson said. “The world is full of materials and different materials serve different purposes and different functionalities. And that’s O.K.”