From the film Blade Runner to Sustainable Development

What do Blade Runner and the “I-would-rather-go-naked-than wear-fur” campaign have in common? On the surface nothing, except that their combined effect triggered a fashion designer´s dream of stopping cruelty to animals and hopefully saving the world at the same time.


Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?

When Ingvar Helgason was two years old the science fiction film Blade Runner was premiered.  It was based on Philip K. Dicks novel “Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? ”.

Helgason hasn´t dreamt of electric sheep, but he has dreamt that one of the 1980s movie´s science fiction ideas will become reality.

A native of Iceland, Helgason dropped out of school to join the fashion industry in London and Paris as a teenager. At 25 he was running his own fashion brand. At the time, auction houses, such as Copenhagen Furs and Saga Furs, were reaching out to young and upcoming designers like himself. “Naomi Campbell was on billboards everywhere saying “I would rather go naked than wear a fur. They had had a public backlash longer than most animal products in the industry.”

At the time Helgason did not answer the fur industry´s desperate cry for coolness.

However: “I am a science fiction fan, and I thought: What if you could do this in a lab like they do in Blade Runner, one of my favourite movies?”

In the movie Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) solves a crime when he finds snake-skin scales with a bar code on them, finds where it was grown and traces it to someone who grows snakes and owls.

Wouldn´t it be cool….? 

Helgason recalls his way of thinking at the time: “Wouldn´t it be cool if you could get out of all these ethical implications by growing this in a lab?”

At the time he was busy running his fashion brand but when it faltered in 2015 he started looking for new adventures.

While the fur industry has its challenges, it shouldn´t come as a surprise that, anyone interested in sustainability should focus on the interconnected meat and leather industries. In leather production, 80% of the animal hide is left unused. 83 billion gallons of water are wasted and 50 million animals are killed to supply the leather and fashion industries.  This industry certainly has the potential of adversely affecting achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, notably #5 Clean Water, #12 Responsible Consumption and Production, #13 Climate action and #15 Life on Land.

Growing meat from cells

At around the same time, Andras Forgacs of the New Jersey start-up Modern Meadow, started gaining attention for his enthusiastic TED Talk on growing meat out of animal cells.

That was when Helgason remembered his Blade Runner idea and discovered that Modern Meadow still had not created a product.

A scientific partner was found in Dr. Dusko Ilic a professor at King´s College who, after his initial scepticism, finally agreed. “If you can get money I’ll take care of the science.”

Just like the androids in Philip K. Dick´s science fiction novel dreamt of electric sheep but ended up in a movie, Helgason adapted to reality and instead of growing fur he focused on leather. “It is a simpler construct, a simpler process.”

The goal of the new company VitroLabs Inc was to produce a million hand-bags because while the demand for leather has increased, the supply has decreased.

High stakes

Helgason points out that half of the $5-10 billion revenues of the luxury industry comes from leather goods while the leather industry has an annual turn-over of $400 billion.

“They rely on this ancient product from a very brutal and earth-destroying process which is industrial animal agriculture,” Helgason explains. And the stakes are high: large parts of the Amazon rain forest have been cleared to make space for cattle to feed a growing population’s appetite for meat and leather.

Meat and leather, coming from the same animal, go hand in hand. “Luckily we are not alone because others are replacing the rest of the cow. Plant-based meat and cell-based meat are hitting the market.”

A catalyst is required

While the leather industry will not change over-night the trends toward sustainability, in industries like car manufacture are encouraging, where even companies like Jaguar will go fully electric by 2025.  “A catalyst is required and then things happen fast.”

The cow-hide production is still at the lab stage, but will soon break out. Many technical hurdles have been overcome.

“We source a cell from a cow, then engineer that cell for specific characteristics that we are looking for. We take that cell and we expand it in a bio-reactor which allows the cell to multiply to sufficient numbers.”

The cells are seeded on scaffolds and over 4 weeks they grow into a full-thickness cow hide. Then they are harvested and the hide goes straight to tanning. Helgason says their hides use 90% fewer chemicals when they go through traditional tanning. In a traditional tanning process 80% of the weight of a hide ends up in a land-fill.  “We just grow into the thickness that is actually required so there is no wastage.”

Global Goals

It shouldn´t come as a surprise that, anyone interested in sustainability should focus on the interconnected meat and leather industries. In leather Production  80% of the animal hide is left unused. 83 billon gallons of water are wasted and 50 million animals are killed to supply the leather and fashion industries.  This industry certainly has the potential of contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, notably #5 Clean water, #12 Responsible Consumption and Production, #13 Climate action and #15 Life on land.

Leather-like alternatives have been in the market since the 1960s using anything from plastic to mushroom materials. “All of them have a monotonous look to them and they don´t have the characteristics and usability that leather has. That is what we are solving.” Right now, Helgason´s company is close to having enough funds to allow it to scale-up its manufacturing.

Manufacturing close to the tanning

The idea is to start manufacturing either in France or maybe Germany, close to where the finished products are traditionally made.

The car industry recently met with a major public outcry when it emerged that their car seats where made of leather from Paraguay where farmers have been displacing indigenous people. The car makers, however, pointed out that the supply chain of cow hides is so opaque that they had no way of knowing where the material came from.

watches with leather bands It is clear, that the environmental footprint of leather production starts when trees in the Amazon are felled to make way for grazing cattle. The cow-hides may be shipped from South-America  to Cambodia or Ethiopia where the first stage of the tanning process happens. After that those hides are shipped onward to other tanneries in Europe where they are finished and re-tanned and made into products.

A cow travels around the globe

“A cow slaughtered in South America ends up travelling the world a few times before being made into a product and then shipped onwards. So, cow-hides are not a by-product but a co-product of the meat industry.  Even when you do find a purpose for the hides instead of throwing them away, they still carry a huge environmental impact.  Our mission, is to reduce that environmental impact.”

“The hope is that the manufacturing, and the growing of hides can be built next to where the tanneries are and where the production takes place to reduce the environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Science fiction becomes reality

Meat and leather grown from animal cells are not yet available to everyone but we are definitely getting closer. Many elements of the distant future portrayed in Blade Runner almost 40 years ago are a part of our daily life now in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Come to think of it, it was not only snakes and owls that were grown from cells in Blade Runner, but also humans!

“….we are not going in that direction…”


“For now I promise, yes,” Helgason says with a mischievous smile.

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