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Our Leather Future?

Furniture World Magazine
Volume 146 NO.3 May/June


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Here’s the (multi) million dollar question. Is it necessary to rely on animals for the meat, eggs, milk and leather products consumed and used daily by billions of people around the world?

Some companies are on a mission to prove the answer is “no” through the development of biofabrication processes that could make animal protein and lab-grown leather a viable mainstream option for consumers. However, despite the early success some of these companies have generated with biofabricated leather samples, real and warranted skepticism still exists. Are consumers ready for lab-grown leather? Will biofabricated leather cost more than the animal-based alternative? Will biofabrication entrepreneurs be able to beat the clock – developing products that can be sold to the masses before investor patience wears thin and their funding runs dry?

It’s an interesting topic for anyone in the furniture industry and one that warrants an open-ended, educational discussion. Let’s dig deeper into the definition and history of biofabrication, the potential positives and negatives associated with lab-grown leather, and how this type of leather may (or may not) change the leather and furniture industries.

Biofabrication and Lab Grown Leather

According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, biofabrication is a tissue engineering technique that can grow cells by obtaining tissue samples through small biopsies that don’t hurt, injure or kill animals. This technique could prove vital to environmental sustainability as growing population numbers will likely put our planet at risk due to the amount of land animals required to sustain more people. Consider the following from a 2013 TED Talk delivered by Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow – one of the first companies to prioritize biofabrication research and development:

  • In 2012, 60 million land animals were required to provide meat/dairy products and leather goods for the roughly 7 billion people worldwide.
  • By 2050, more than 100 million land animals will be required to provide the same for the anticipated worldwide population of 10 billion people.
  • So – what does that mean? Maintaining a land animal herd that large would have a devastating effect on the environment. In 2012, land animals were already responsible for inhabiting 33% of dry land, consuming 8% of global water, and emitting 18% of the world’s greenhouse gasses.
  • And biofabricated, lab-grown leathers could provide a viable solution that protects the planet. In fact, One Green Planet reports that lab-grown products will use 99% less land, consume 96% less water, and emit 96% fewer greenhouse gases, with minimal waste, and no risk of livestock diseases.

While the environmental advantages associated with biofabrication could be massive, there is a lot of uncertainty about how future conditions may affect the market for leather used in the furniture industry.

Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry and according to a Food and Agricultural report released by the United Nations, the per capita consumption of beef is expected to grow from 10.1 Kg per person in 2015 to 10.6 Kg in 2030. At the same time, human population growth will increase from 7.35 billion in 2015 to 8.5 billion people in 2030.

Based on just these estimates, leather production should continue to increase, although it’s not certain that it will keep pace with growth in demand for leather, especially high quality leather used in leather seating. Nor is the future clear regarding how environmental issues will play out with regard to leather production and pricing.

Even so, biofabrication companies like Brooklyn, NY-based Modern Meadow (http://www.modernmeadow.com) are betting that the world is at the start of an emerging trend that will cause consumers and furniture retailers to seek out affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional leather.

Biofabrication & Its Implications

  • While lab-grown leather may seem like the perfect alternative, it could also be too good to be true. As a 2015 Guardian article suggests, Modern Meadow and their contemporaries are still a long way from turning lab samples into consumer-ready products. And despite increased leather costs, the public may not be ready for lab-grown leather.
As my company, Creative Colors, described in a recent blog post, “Choose Leather that Fits Your Lifestyle,” many types of leather already exist and customers often purchase “faux” or bonded leather due to the affordable price. Some people know this type of leather as “pleather” – a substitute for real leather that can easily be mistaken for real leather. 

The major issue consumers often associate with bonded leather is that it may scratch, rip, tear and become discolored. While many customers believe the price is right upon purchase, they often end up spending more in the long run as they are forced to more quickly replace these items.

However, there are some serious advantages afforded by the biofabrication process that may overcome potential roadblocks. In addition to disconnecting the relationship between the meat industry and leather, lab-grown leather process is considerably more efficient than the traditional, animal-based process. Modern Meadow’s Creative Director, Suzanne Lee, says it takes her company about 1.5 months to make a finished square-foot leather sample. Compare that to the 2-3 years it requires to raise, feed and shelter an animal before the traditional process can even begin. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the biofabrication process eliminates waste entirely and affords leather makers significantly more control over the look, feel and shape of the final product.

Regardless, the short-term prospects for lab-grown leather and its long-term viability is likely contingent on these key factors.

  • Will biofabrication technology improve to a point where production costs for biofabrication become competitive? 
  • Will consumers consider the untarnished, unscarred final product the real, durable, and authentic leather they crave?
  • Will environmental concerns create a preference for bio-fabricated leather?
  • Will there be a mis-match in the future between the supply of quality leather and demand?

Is Lab Grown Leather the Future?

At Creative Colors, we have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best home furnishing retailers in the country, and around the world, for more than 35 years as a leading repair and restoration franchise. And in that time, we’ve discovered the key distinction between average and great home furnishings retailers is their ability to educate customers on the leather products that best fit their budget, lifestyle and expectations. Of course, the key to getting that right is ensuring store managers and salespeople understand current trends and available product options.

So – what’s the takeaway on biofabrication? It’s clear that at some point the leather and furniture industry will need a man-made, environmentally friendly and cost effective leather replacement. If the biofabrication process can generate leather that is comparable to traditional, animal-based leather in quality and durability at an affordable cost, companies like Modern Meadow will have uncovered a goldmine.  However, if furniture retailers buy in too early and these lab-grown leather products fail to meet quality expectations, the industry could suffer from warranty issues and unnecessary repair expenses.
If biofabrication allows consumers to access cheaper leather products that they believe in, this trend would represent a boon for the entire leather and furniture industry. The bottom line is that biofabrication and the development of lab-grown leather is an exciting and potentially transformative trend that furniture retailers should track with a curious and discerning eye. Here’s to hoping we can all benefit from man-made leather products that keep our planet safer and our wallets thicker in the near future!

About Kelli Bollman: Kelli Bollman is the Vice President of Creative Colors International http://www.wecanfixthat.com/, a leading national repair and restoration franchise, and President of J&J’s Creative Colors Inc., a privately-held repair and restoration company serving South Chicago and the Southern Suburbs. Bollman is a passionate, optimistic and personable executive who leads Creative Colors International’s training programs and oversees all operations at J&J’s Creative Colors, Inc. She can be reached at kelli.bollman@creativecolorsinc.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/kellibollman

Launched in 1991, the Creative Colors International (CCI) franchise system was created through its affiliate, J&J’s Creative Colors, an industry leader in refurbishment techniques and systems. Today, both companies continue to be family-owned and operated by the second generation. Catering to the abundance of upholstered items in every home, business and vehicle, CCI is the ultimate in on-site repair, restoration, cleaning, protection, and dyeing of leather, vinyl, plastic and fabric. Through proprietary technology, CCI restores damaged material at a fraction of replacement costs, saving customers up to 90 percent. CCI repairs are stronger than the original area and are nearly invisible to the naked eye. In the Automotive, Furniture and Commercial Markets, CCI offers on-site repair and restoration to all types of leather, vinyl, fabric, plastic and carpeting by repairing and redyeing holes, cuts, tears, burns, scrapes, fading and discoloration. For more information on CCI’s services and franchise opportunities, visit www.wecanfixthat.com.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.