Can This Tiny Midwestern Startup Become the Beyond Meat of Leather?
Fashion designers, environmentalists, and car companies are desperate for someone to invent animal-free leather. This Peoria, Illinois upstart thinks it can.
In September, Luke Haverhals, a 41-year-old former chemistry professor from Peoria, Illinois, found himself at London Fashion Week, strolling through the exhibition halls while dressed in his go-to power outfit: a white dress shirt, blue pants, a brown belt, and a two-year-old sports jacket selected by his wife, Noelle. Very presentable, he thought. He passed by a collection of eco-friendly couture — dresses made from discarded can tabs, bags crafted from landfill waste, swimwear constructed out of ocean plastic — before stopping at an exhibit by Felder & Felder, the British fashion label best known for its distressed leather jackets, laser cut dresses, and daringly sheer shirts.
Like a tourist arriving at the Eiffel Tower, this was the singular thing he had traveled thousands of miles to see: a mannequin draped in a sleek, shimmering gold evening gown. Under the spotlights, the material looked glossy, almost latex-like, but it’s about as far from latex as chemically possible. The dress — and Haverhals’s brown belt — were both made from Mirum, a plant-based leather substitute cooked up by Haverhals’s company, Natural Fiber Welding.
Haverhals’s company is one of several startups competing to solve the fashion industry’s big sustainability problem. Fashion’s constant churn has created massive amounts of waste, accounting for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of industrial water pollution globally, according to sustainability organization, Global Fashion Agenda. If nothing changes, it’s on track to consume 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
As animal-free meat companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods tear through the food industry, taking consumers along with them, there’s been growing interest for animal-free leather. The market for leather alternatives is set to be worth anywhere from $45…