Leather is controversial, not only because it requires cows to be killed to make it. Tanning leather involves toxic chemicals such as chromium which can be dumped into local waterways. According to environmental activists, leather is a major contributor of climate change.
The world's 14.5 percent greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to animal agriculture. Kering, a luxury fashion conglomerate, which owns brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent that love leather, stated in its 2020 environment report that leather production and processing is the largest contributor to the company's carbon footprint. The fires that engulfed the Amazon in 2019 were at least partly due to cattle ranching operations. Several large brands, including Timberland and H&M, pledged to stop sourcing leather from this region.
The alternatives available to the fashion industry, howeverfossil-fuel-based polyurethane and PVCleave something to be desired. The plant-based vegan leathers that claim to emit less greenhouse gases are mixed with synthetic petroleum products. This makes them more harmful than the cruelty-free marketing claims. You might think you can buy a Stan Smith shoe or wallet made of lab-grown leather from Adidas, as well as the Stella McCartney prototypes. But, those materials are still in development and may not be commercially viable.
There is currently one vegan leather you can buy online that is truly eco-friendly and innovative. AirCarbon is a carbon-negative material made from methane-munching marine organisms. It first hit the market in the form sunglasses, wallets and phone sleeves a year ago.
The industry is known for extolling even the most basic product drops (another water bottle jacket anyone? The reaction to the brand Covalent was surprising. This could be due to Mark Herrema (CEO of Newlight Technologies), who brought chill vibes from California to our interview. He chuckled when I mentioned his relaxed demeanour and said that he's been creating this material for 18 years. He's now well beyond the hype stage, and is now ready to just do it.
Literally: Newlight announced in August a partnership to explore AirCarbon uses. Nike, which claims that 70% of its greenhouse gas emissions are contained in its materials, has joined the ranks of large fashion brands committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by at minimum 30% by 2030.
Herrema stated that the idea for AirCarbon was born while he was studying at Princeton in 2000. While he was studying politics, he became concerned about his digestive health and began researching food systems and diets. He discovered that cows can release up to 500 liters per day of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the air. He saw a business opportunity in methane vaporizing into the atmosphere at a large farm, with a market value exceeding $20,000 annually.
Scientists discovered 100 years ago that organisms can eat greenhouse gases, and that they store the energy in their cells as a molecule called polyhydroxybutyrate (or PHB). Herrema states that this molecule is meltable when it is isolated. It can be moulded into any type of material in any color. This includes leather-like sheets and fibers as well as solid shapes such sunglasses.