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Lab-grown leather looks, feels and smells like the real stuff

Biomanufacturing could be the way forward for leather

Leather: It not only requires you to raise animals, then slaughter and skin them, but the tanning process it has to go through for it to be usable uses chromium and other harmful substances. Most of it is washed out during the processing, so the end product is safe to handle, but it actually seriously impacts the environment (and the people) in the areas where it takes place.

This and the moral issue of killing literally millions of animals (not just cows, but goats, ostriches and even deer) for their skin should be enough incentive for us the industry to look elsewhere for its durable seat cover material. And while strides are being made by some automakers to reduce the use of natural leather in their interiors, global leather demand for it is still high.

Besides, leather started being used in the past mainly for its durability and not necessarily for the feeling of luxury it conveys - this is a more recent development. But many of the most opulent cars from, say, the 1930s had fabric interiors where the quality of the fabric and its design imbued interiors with the sensation of extravagance and richness.

And the modern alternatives are so much better than actual leather that one really wonders why the industry is still so prolific. But if you still want the exact same feeling of natural leather and don’t want to settle for cheap faux stuff (most of which is based on polyurethane), you can now rest assured as a way has been patented to create what looks, feels and smells like something that was stripped off a carcass then passed through vats of chemicals, then dyed and dried for your viewing and tactile pleasure.

Yes, that’s right - virtually indistinguishable lab-grown leather is here and it makes a compelling case for itself. The technique behind it is called biofabrication or biomanufacturing and it uses colonies of yeast bacteria which grow collagen that is then assembled into a fibrous material. It which has to be tanned and processed in a similar manner to regular leather, although the company has promissed to commit to making the process as sustainable and light as possible; the entire process takes around two weeks.

Modern Meadow is the New Jersey-based company which created the technique and their leather-like product is now used in a line of biofabricated materials called Zoa™ not yet available for sale. It has therefore not been used in an automotive application yet, but if it is completely undistinguishable from the real thing, then it should prove a hit as an alternative, even if the company behind it says it isn't really aiming to replace the billon-dollar leather industry with this product.

In fact, the manufacturer which gets on board with this kind of technology would have a field day marketing itself as green and progressive and it wouldn’t alienate buyers looking for the specific smell, texture and feeling of real leather. At the same time, it would attract new green-minded buyers who’d appreciate the lack of animal products in their new vehicle.

However, biofabrication is still a new thing and the products it can create (like this “I can’t believe it’s not leather” product) can’t yet be manufactured on a large scale. But industry needs to promote techniques like this one to reduce its environmental footprint and especially the automotive industry where leather-like products are already in use and could be improved.

READ MORE: A look at early power-retractable hardtop coupes

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green leather
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