Luxury

How Biotechnology Is Reshaping Fashion (And Your Leather Jacket)

As the fashion industry is forced to rethink its materials in the name of sustainability, a new crop of biotechnology start-ups are providing an answer.

By Divya Bala

Luxury

As the fashion industry is forced to rethink its materials in the name of sustainability, a new crop of biotechnology start-ups are providing an answer.

By Divya Bala

There was a time when any question around “future fashion” would bring up sci-fi-esque images of The Fifth Element’s Leeloo in her thermal bandage outfit or Marty McFly’s self-drying jacket without an “eco-friendly” detail in sight. Recently, the development of a number of bio-technology start-ups seeking to provide leather alternatives – as well as sustainable alternatives to other materials including diamonds, cotton, silk and fur – look to disrupt the industry landscape as it stands, providing new, higher-performing alternatives that seek to innovate the way fashion is conceived of, created and consumed.

As one of the most widely-traded commodities in the modern world, the leather industry is a powerful player in the global economy. With an estimated value of approximately US$100 billion per year, the raw material leather trade has long been left unrivaled – until now. Several start-ups globally are finding innovative ways of using natural materials to create leather substitutes. Milan-based company Vegea has developed a way to make leather out of the skins, stalks and seeds of grapes as by-products of the wine industry. US-based MycoWorks is using a mushroom mycelium alternative that’s strong, water-resistant and entirely biodegradable. Green Banana Paper of Micronesia make sturdy, water-resistant leather from the banana leaves that otherwise go to waste following banana harvest and similarly, Ananas Anam in the UK is taking another tropical fruit – this time, the fibers of pineapple leaves – to create Piñatex; the basis for yet another alternative for leather for which even the by-product of the fiber extraction process is then recycled into fertilizer and bio-fuel.

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So influential has the current movement towards cruelty-free leather been, (the global vegan leather market is set to be worth USD $85 billion by 2025) that in April last year, PETA sent a letter urging Encyclopaedia Britannica (which owns Merriam-Webster) to expand its definition of “leather” to include all plant-derived and synthetic materials. “Dictionaries are living documents that can and should be adapted to include the new language of an evolving culture,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “PETA is calling on Merriam-Webster to update its current limited definition of ‘leather’ to reflect the skyrocketing popularity of animal-free leather in our modern world.”

So, while it’s yet to be confirmed whether our future biker jackets will soon dry-clean themselves as per those of Mr. McFly or simply wrap onto our body in ad-libbed, couture glory à la Leeloo, one thing we know they won’t do anymore is leave a larger environmental footprint.

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