They have done it and it is real: the displacement of animal leather with technology. The Economist reports that engineers have created good-grade leather from biotechnology and nanotechnology. No animal involved. Simply, by manipulating and combining atoms, a new world is born, right in the lab.
These contrasting facts make leather manufacturing a tempting target for technological disruption. And tanned animal skins are indeed about to face a rival. The challenge comes not, as might be assumed, from a substitute made of synthetic polymer, but rather from something which is, in most respects, the same as natural leather. The difference is that, instead of coming from an animal’s back, this leather is grown, by the metre, in factories.
I wrote about this possibility few weeks ago where I noted on the potential disruption of agro-commodities like rubber by technology. I had seen some works in universities and was writing based on experimental data I had seen. But it seems, Modern Meadow, the company behind the biotech leather is ahead.
The biggest crisis is coming. It will come when nanotechnology would have matured from lab to the market. First, it will help displace millions of cotton, rubber and agricultural workers across the globe when engineers can make these devices in the lab. They can hire fifty people to produce the same quantity of cotton one million people produce in Sudan. They will displace those workers and clusters of wars would take place across the developing world.
They are not yet in the production line, but the trajectory is obvious: within a decade, we may not need to kill animals for leather. Labs will supply them. Think about it: many African farmers could be displaced in their agricultural endeavors. This will be life-shattering and could be consequential to many nations.
I am truly concerned because this lab leather has many advantages over the one from animal as noted in the article: you can customize it in texture, structure and even color. That will reduce the cost of dyeing in subsequent phases of making wears.
One other advantage of Modern Meadow’s manufacturing process is that it permits different parts of a sheet to be given different properties. That can change both the look and the feel of the product in controlled ways. One area might, for instance, be made stiff while another is made soft. This would allow the newfangled “hides” to be custom-built for particular designs of shoe. The process could also be tweaked, though the company has announced no plans to do so, to expand beyond cow hides, by encoding other types of collagen in the yeast. That would permit analogues of specialist leathers, such as ostrich or alligator, to be grown.
You cannot beat a totally engineered material and that is why we may see the markets move. It is very certain that the lab one will be cheaper. All the combinations will put people that rear animals for leather on the verge of disruption. There is nothing technology does not go after, even leather. Imagine that!
So in the near future, the catwalk will not involve any animal. Purely, the bits, bytes and nano will drive it. That should concern Africa because we had expected that agriculture will save the future. That may not be true anymore.
So what do we do? The best defense is really to go on offense and master technology capability to compete, not just to make leather in the lab, but to save other sectors from technology. The age of disruption demands nothing less.