Some meaty facts:
- Everyone knows Americans sho' do lurve their burgers, scarfing down around 1000 of them annually; for many, meat and potatoes is the mealtime mantra, as illustrated by the 270 pounds of meat per person being eaten each year. However, given that around 10% or so of the U.S. population - just over 31 million people - identify as vegetarian, this figure actually underestimates how much meat those who do eat it are consuming. Worldwide, we consume almost 300 million tons of meat annually, a figure expected to grow 70% by 2050 to 500 million tons.
- The concentrated animal-feeding operations or CAFOs, where much of the livestock ends up, are rife with problems. These include disease outbreaks, threats to food security and environmental costs such as wastewater and pollutants, nitrogen, phosphorus, pathogens, heavy metals and hormones. And then there is the pressing issue of how inhumanely the animals themselves are treated.
- The farming of animals takes up one third of all available (ice-free) land on the planet and emits so much greenhouse gas as to have the dubious honor of being the leading contributor to climate change.
Not to be all Captain Obvious about it, but meat is without question one of the most taxing of all environmentally-taxing resources.
And yet, leather continues to be one of the most widely traded commodities in the world. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, global trade in leather and leather products is estimated at US$100 billion per year. From the meat consumed to the leather used, the industry is a juggernaut that won't be disappearing anytime soon. Which means well-meaning attempts to eliminate the demand for animal products, while admirable, are beyond unrealistic. Instead, companies like Modern Meadow - which just received a $10 million investment from Horizons Ventures, the venture fund of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing - are much more pragmatic. After a small biopsy which neither harms nor kills the animal, they use the skin cells to "brew" leather by the tray in the lab. Tissue engineering of biofabricated or biofab leather paves the way for fashion designers and leather goods companies to meet the voracious global demand for leather free of imperfections - including scars, bite marks and uneven or odd coloring - without taking such a toll on both the environment and the animals.
The implications of tissue technology have found more esoteric expression in The Tissue Culture & Art Project, initiated in 1996 as an ongoing research and development project. Their Victimless Leather experiment explores the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. They grow things like a stitchless jacket inside a test tube (below), nourishing and growing the cells via drip-feed. The feeding part is important because it classifies the teensy jacket as a complex organism that is semi-living. "Our intention is not to provide yet another consumer product but rather to raise questions about our exploitation of other living beings," they explain. "This artistic grown garment will confront people with the moral implications of wearing parts of dead animals for protective and aesthetic reasons and will further confront notions of relationships with living systems manipulated or otherwise. An actualized possibility of wearing ‘leather’ without killing an animal is offered as a starting point for cultural discussion."
Looking at novel, bio-driven ways to innovate the future of fashion is a signature of the Futurenetic fashion tribe. If you want to know more about this tribe or any of the other three fashion tribes I track, START HERE.
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott