Leather is one controversial material, and not just because cows have to die to produce it. Or because tanning leather requires toxic chemicals like chromium, which are sometimes dumped directly into local waterways. No, the worst thing about leather, according to environmental activists, is that it is a major contributor to climate change.
Animal husbandry is estimated to account for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Kering, the luxury fashion conglomerate that owns such major leather-loving brands as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, said in its 2020 environmental report that leather production and processing is by far the biggest contributor to its CO2 footprint. And when the Amazon caught fire in 2019, the fires were at least partially blamed on the operation of cattle farms, and several major brands, including H&M and Timberland, promised to stop procuring leather from the region.
However, the alternatives available to the fashion industry — fossil-fuel-based polyurethane and PVC — leave something to be desired. All the lively plant-based vegan leathers, whose manufacturers claim to emit fewer greenhouse gases during production, are also blended with synthetic oil products, making them more harmful than their “cruelty-free” marketing implies. With all the press around prototype products from Adidas and Stella McCartney, you would be forgiven for thinking you could already buy a lab-grown leather purse or sponge skin Stan Smith sneakers, but these materials still struggle with commercial viability.
For now, there is only one truly innovative and eco-friendly vegan “leather” that you can click to buy directly from the internet. AirCarbon, a carbon-negative material made using methane-munching marine organisms, came on the market a year ago in the form of sunglasses, wallets and laptops and phone sleeves.
In an industry known for hyping even the most mundane product drops (yet another recycled bottle jacket, anyone?), The reception of the new brand, called Covalent, was surprisingly subdued. This can perhaps be attributed to the startup CEO who made AirCarbon, Newlight Technologies’ Mark Herrema, who brought the chillest from California’s mood to our interview. When I noticed his relaxed manner, he chuckled, pointing out that he has been working on creating this material for a full 18 years. And yet, with six rounds of funding under his belt, the most recent for $ 45 million, he is well past the hype scene and into the “just do it” phase.
Literally: In August, Newlight announced a partnership with Nike to investigate uses of AirCarbon. Nike, which says 70 percent of its emissions are wrapped in its materials, is one of many major fashion brands committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.
Herrema said the idea that would eventually lead to AirCarbon came to him while he was in Princeton in the early 2000s. He studied politics, but some digestive problems caused him to start researching diets and the food system. He found that a cow can burp up to 500 liters of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere every day. He imagined the market value of methane – more than $ 20,000 a year from a large farm – evaporated into the air and saw a business opportunity.
As it turns out, hundreds of years earlier had discovered that there are organisms that eat greenhouse gases and store that energy inside their cells in the form of a molecule called polyhydroxybutyrate or PHB. “And this molecule, when you isolate it, turns out to be fusible,” Herrema says. This means that it can be molded into all types of materials in any color, from leather-like sheets to fibers and solid shapes like sunglasses.