Feb 22, 2024
by Karl Smith
Hype Cultured: Leather, Meat and Qorium’s Bid to Cultivate Change in Fashion
by Karl Smith
Feb 22, 2024

In our last material round-up we noted that cultivated leather start-up Qorium had raised funding to expand its operations in transitioning the fashion and design industries away from their reliance on animal-derived products. Co-founded by Mark Post, the company’s new injection of capital, combined with the Dutch pharmacologist’s extensive knowledge – invaluable know-how gained from years of leading the charge in the cultivated meat sphere – immediately made waves because of the genuine possibility it might actually shake up an industry notoriously averse to being shaken.

This, of course, was and is positive news: according to the Maastricht-based innovator, its cultured material product uses 99% less water and 66% less energy than what you might describe as “the real thing.” Also unlike “the real thing,” Qorium’s leather does not require the breeding, rearing and slaughter of animals – a massive progressive step, not only from the anti-animal cruelty perspective, but also in the sense that it removes the enormous level of high-polluting methane emissions released by cattle from the equation altogether.

The thing is, though, on a base level, Qorium’s product – unlike its peers and competitors in the alternative materials industry – technically is the real thing. Or close to, anyway.

“Cultured leather will certainly disrupt, but not overturn this ecosystem. Anything that drives innovation and delivers positive change is ultimately a positive, even for existing stakeholders.” – Michael Newton, CEO of Qorium

In a four-stage process, Qorium “scours the globe” for cows with the “most desirable hides” – hand-picked for versatility, durability and luxury when it comes to the finished product – and biopsies cells from these select “donor” cows in a process that the company describes as “harmless.” The cells are then taken back to the lab, where they’re grown and where they coaxed to continue producing collagen without any added animal-derived elements. Working with tanneries and brands, the collagen sheets are then integrated into the production process for leather as it currently exists – requiring no additional infrastructure and giving the fashion industry no good reason to say no.

Described as “Real leather, made better,” however, there are naturally those who might object to Qorium’s product on the basis that – harmless or otherwise – it’s still derived from a living, sentient creature. Those inside the company, however, don’t see things the same way. “For us, this is not an issue, but an advantage,” says CEO Michael Newton. “The fact that our product contains bovine DNA is what gives it the extraordinary qualities that customers and consumers are looking for. The fact that this is harvested painlessly from a living animal is a powerful part of our story.”

There’s room too, for those with a more animal-focused activism bent, to raise eyebrows at parts of Qorium’s process; how the company picks its cell-donor cows or, indeed, the very idea of a “donor” of any kind which hasn’t given consent is likely to cause consternation amongst the vegan community and bristle the material innovation operations which intersect with those ethical ideals.

But then, as is so often the case, we have to think about balance and consider whether the pros outweigh what might be perceived as the cons. Most notably in terms of environmental damage control.

“The impact is potentially huge. We’re still validating all the details but looking at water use, energy use, CO2 production, etc. our product creates a significantly lower impact vs. traditional leather production,” Newton explains, “One example of this that we are particularly proud of is that, because we bypass the early, more chemically and energy intensive part of the tanning process, we produce considerably less waste. At all points in the production process, we offer transformative advantages over traditional product.”

Considering the enormous carbon cost of the leather industry – which hides (no pun intended) behind the meat industry, claiming to be a “byproduct” with no inherent impact prior to the leather-specific tanning process – this is a serious claim which, if upheld and if scaled, could genuinely change things for the better. Even if it isn’t a perfect solution.

“I think it’s important for all businesses with ambitions to move towards sustainability,” Newton says, “We’re all dealing with legacy systems as well as market friction – if we are only satisfied with perfection, change never happens.” To Newton’s mind, then, he suggests, “Qorium’s product represents such a significant leap forward for leather that, in my view, it would be irresponsible not to pursue it.”

This position is something of a gauntlet thrown down to Qorium’s peers in the material innovation sphere – the implication being that, yes, even if there are solutions further down the line which might please a wider audience, activists from both environmental and animal-rights groups, holding out for those ideal innovations is a noble if ineffective way of working; a suggestion that a progressive mindset is not, in fact, the same as progressive action.

And, while Newton acknowledges the queasiness that some might feel, he doesn’t see the challenge as insurmountable by any means – particularly with the benefit of Post’s expertise.

“Mark’s experience in cultured meat provides a lot of general value to Qorium as he is deeply experienced in building a cellular agriculture company. We equally benefit from the ecosystems that the cultivated meat companies, including [Post’s company] Mosa Meat, have helped create over the last decade,” he explains, adding, that – from his point of view – Qorium’s product has notable advantages over cultured meat which might well make it easier to sell as a concept to consumers.

“At the simplest level,” Newton says, “we have much less to overcome in terms of the ‘ick’ factor. It’s easy to convince people of the environmental, ethical and (once scale is reached), commercial benefits of lab-grown meat. But persuading consumers to actually eat it is a more emotionally driven hurdle (there’s also the challenge of regulation and powerful food lobbies, as we’ve seen play out more recently in Italy).

“For leather, people are generally very excited and enthusiastic about trying our product. Having said that, the experience of the meat sector teaches us that it’s critical to engage with the public – and with industry – early. We’re not the enemy of traditional craft and industry, we see ourselves as complementary. Also, we’re fortunate to have fewer regulatory hurdles to contend with and a generally higher product pricing.”

Again there is potential here for the butting of heads: that Qorium positions itself as symbiotic to “traditional craft and industry,” as Newton puts it, will again cause disquiet with much of the next-gen lobby, given that a huge amount of materials science in terms of alternative materials is an effort to subvert and eventually even destroy the leather and fashion industries as we know them today.

Surely, though, this feeling isn’t mutual? “You may be surprised to hear that in many cases, the opposite is true,” Newton suggests, “The leather market is made up of many stakeholders, from farmers to tanners to processors/finishers and customers. It’s a complex ecosystem, and at every stage people are seeking to work more sustainably, not because they’re forced to, but because like all of us they have an eye on the future for themselves and their children. Cultured leather will certainly disrupt, but not overturn this ecosystem. Anything that drives innovation and delivers positive change is ultimately a positive, even for existing stakeholders.”

Even this – which, as a statement, ought not to be contentious; ought, in fact, to be obviously true – is likely to be greeted with skepticism from campaigners, innovators and various other sub-sections of the Earth-friendlier community and its adjunct marketplace where the belief, broadly speaking, is that profits are clearly and consciously chosen above planet at every possible opportunity.

“We’re all dealing with legacy systems as well as market friction – if we are only satisfied with perfection, change never happens. Qorium’s product represents such a significant leap forward for leather that, in my view, it would be irresponsible not to pursue it.” – Michael Newton, CEO of Qorium

But then, if there were chance for co-operation – a dialogue that might lead to quicker progress and opportunities on all sides that might well incentivize an industry that rarely acts without a dollar-value carrot on the stick – wouldn’t that be preferable? Wouldn’t it be better to be, if not reading from the same page, writing the same story on the empty pages still to come?

On the one hand, a bogeyman makes for an easy target and an easy target makes for a good way of bringing people around to the cause. On the other, isn’t it better to be chasing something positive? To have something to aim for, rather than against?

Cultured leather is never going to please everyone, but the current system makes even fewer people happy. If brands and manufacturers are willing to adjust, and if consumers can be convinced to make the switch, why not see how far this takes us?

Progress over perfection, as we always say.