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Will Mushrooms “Leather” be the Future Of Sustainable Fashion?

man sewing brown belt

Stella McCartney opened her spring 2022 show in October with Paul Stamets, an American mycologist. The British designer used fungi in her designs before. McCartney is a pioneer in sustainability and uses cruelty-free materials in her fashion work. In March, McCartney unveiled leggings and a sports bra made of mushroom-based “leather”. The debut of McCartney’s first ever bag made of Mylo(tm), an exclusive mycelium-based material, felt like an announcement about the material’s official arrival into the luxury fashion industry.

Mycelium is the vegetative part in fungus. Mushroom leather is made of mycelium. It’s been used by scientists and artists since the late 20th Century. PVC and polyurethane have been used extensively as cruelty-free alternatives for the past decade, even in luxury fashion. However, some people are concerned about the environmental impact of pleather production, which releases toxic chemicals from its plastic component. To make, it requires a lot of water, energy, chemicals, and other resources. It doesn’t biodegrade after its life cycle ends, so it will remain in landfill for many years. Naturally-derived alternatives such as mushroom and cactus have been in the spotlight. Stella McCartney is not the only biotechnology company to partner with, Bolt Threads and MycoWorks, on mycelium collections.

“Using biology to create new products or replace old ones we might have made with plastics and chemicals.” –  Eben Bayer is the cofounder of Ecovative. This biotechnology company based in New York focuses on sustainable alternatives to plastic and foam.

Are mushroom leathers the future of sustainable fashion?

It’s complicated. One, every company has its own method of growing and processing mycelium. This may include chemicals that alter the organic composition of the product. This raises questions about the sustainability and non-toxic nature of mushroom leather. Bolt Threads and other companies argue that these chemicals are necessary. Jamie Bainbridge from Bolt Threads, vice-president for product development, stated that mycelium can be used to imitate leather but it is difficult to create a product with the same durability as animal-derived materials without using synthetics.

Bainbridge refused to reveal the synthetic materials used in the company’s production. “If I shared that it would be a little like giving you the recipe,” she said. However, she stated that the company is trying to increase the use of organic materials in its production. She says, “We have to first get a material on the market that’s made of good chemical and biological inputs. If we do these two things correctly and make a durable product, biodegradability will follow.”

MycoWorks claims that it does not use synthetic materials in its production process. Instead, it uses “mycelium byproducts from agriculture and lumber waste and cotton” and then the mycelium is sent on to its tannery partners. Scullin states that they use a “chromium free chemistry” to treat the leather. Bayer believes that mushroom leather can be sustainable fashion’s future if it is kept in its natural form. “I think the holy grail of this space will be the combination bio-based chemistry and plastic-free chemistry that gives the consumer an acceptable durability rating for a handbag, accessory, or shoes.”

There’s also the issue of accessibility. Many of the current mushroom leather products being promoted are for luxury markets. It’s almost certain that it will trickle down at Hermes and Stella McCartney, but there are very few examples of material reaching mass-market brands. Adidas’ Mylo-made Stan Smiths and Lululemon’s mushroom-based yoga accessories are the exceptions. Ganni just announced a capsule collection that is mycelium-based, in collaboration with Bolt Threads. It will be available in 2022. Although no details have been released, it is safe to assume that prices will not be too different from brands’ regular offerings. Bainbridge says, “If you can offer a material that is easily adopted by high-end luxury as well as mass market,”

Bayer, who founded Ecovative in 2007, believes that mushroom leather could be an environmentally sustainable option. However, he also notes the importance to open up natural leather options for artisans all over the world. While they may not have the same ability to work with Bolt Threads or MycoWorks, in the same vein large retailers and designers, it is possible to use the leather to create a more sustainable future. In Bayer’s ideal scenario, mushroom leather manufacturers would produce enough material to allow independent artisans to have textiles that could be used to replace animal leather. This would still maintain their craft and practice.

It’s too early to predict if mushroom leather will be on the mainstream market, as it is with other material science innovations like 3D printing, electromagnetic weaving and self-laced products. Bayer says, “Unless this can reach the masses it’s kinda cool PR.”

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