Iowa State researcher studying sustainably-produced leather alternative


Young-A Lee in an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
Young-A Lee in an associate professor of apparel, merchandising, and design at Iowa State University. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
Nick Fetty | April 29, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is studying how cellulose fibers can be used to create a sustainable alternative to leather.

Young-A Lee – an associate professor of apparel, merchandising, and design at Iowa State University – recently published a chapter in Sustainable Fibers for Fashion Industry detailing the findings from her case study. Dr. Lee studied cellulose fibers – a byproduct of kombucha tea – which feed off of a mixture of vinegar and sugar. When a symbiotic colony of bacteria is added to the fiber it creates a film similar to leather.

The leather-like material has been tested for other purposes such as cosmetics, food, and biomedical tissue for dressing wounds but Dr. Lee’s study is one of the few that examines its feasibility in the apparel industry. She said that since the material is sustainably produced it can be more marketable to environmentally-conscious retailers and consumers.

“Socially conscious awareness from the consumer end plays a lot,” she said. “Employees who work in the fashion industry need to be fully educated on this movement. The industry cannot shift things at one time. It is all about people in this industry. The key is changing their values to consider the betterment of people and the planet in a long run, instead of focusing on a consumer’s short-coming interest.”

Dr. Lee surveyed college students to get a consumer’s perspective on the look and feel of various prototypes – shoes and a vest – made from the cellulose fiber. Those surveyed said they liked the sustainability of the material but their willingness to actually purchase the product was not as favorable. However, Dr. Lee is optimistic that more research on the material will make consumers more receptive to purchasing it in the future.

Funding for this study was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A prototype of shoes made from cellulose fibers. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
A prototype of shoes made from cellulose fibers. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

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