There’s no doubt: designers, brands, and consumers LOVE leather. They love its strength, softness, beauty, and versatility. In fact, in 2021 alone, a total of 407 billion dollars worth of leather was sold all around the world.
Although people love leather, the animal leather industry is one of the most environmentally harmful industries out there. Fortunately, there is now an alternative: mushroom leather.
Animal Leather Harms the Environment
Leather usually comes from animal skin, most commonly from cattle. This means we need to raise and slaughter A LOT of animals to fulfill the demand. The problem with animal leather is linked directly to the number of animals that we have to raise to meet the demand for it.
Raising animals for leather requires massive amounts of water, feed, pastureland, and non-renewable fossil fuels. Factory-farmed animals produce more than 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population. And they do not get the benefits of waste treatment plants. Deforestation for more land to produce grain to feed the cattle is a huge problem. Carbon and methane emissions from cattle are also contributors to climate change.
Benefits of Mushroom Leather
The fashion industry has joined this ongoing battle against climate change. It is working to find substitute materials to replace unsustainable leather. But for the material to successfully convince all stakeholders in the value chain, it needs to have the durability of animal leather. And it must retain the sentiments and values of how leather is perceived by consumers of fashion.
The main attributes that people associate with leather fashion are confidence, creativity, and self-expression. So how can we find or create something that mimics the qualities of leather that both designers and consumers adore?
Well, there’s a perfect replacement for animal leather already out there – mushroom leather!
When you look at a mushroom, you are actually seeing the “fruit” of a much larger fungus. In the ground under the mushroom, there are thousands of fungal strands called mycelium. All in all, there are trillions of this mycelium all around the world. Think of them as the root structure of a mushroom. The mycelium acts like a highway for all trees and plant life to share nutrients and information.
And now, researchers have found ways to grow mycelium in a controlled environment and turn it into the perfect leather alternative.
Because mycelium is found in nature, it is an infinitely renewable resource that is also sustainable. The leather made from mycelium does not require any of the harmful chemicals that are required to prepare animal leather, like mineral salts, coal-tar derivatives, P U, and PVC. There is no animal waste, and no animals are killed. And best of all, it is difficult to tell the difference between mycelium leather and animal leather.
When researchers grow mycelium and mushrooms, it takes about one square meter of land to grow 1 kilogram of mushrooms, compared to 97 square meters of land to produce 1 kilogram of cattle. And mycelium fabric uses less than one-tenth of the water. On top of that, mushroom leather can be grown in high-density “vertical farms,” all while using 100% renewable energy.
How Is Mushroom Leather Made?
When we put the collagen structure of animal leather under a microscope, this is what we see.
The collagen structure is what makes animal leather so strong. The natural structure of a cattle’s skin is interwoven. Its three-dimensional network of fibers is all jumbled up organically. This allows tension to be held in multi-directions when leather is stressed.
Compare this to popular human-woven materials like cotton and denim, which form a uniform crisscross pattern, and tension can only be held in two directions.
Here is what mycelium looks like under a microscope. Its structure is extremely similar to leather with its multi-directional build. But unlike leather, mycelium fabric is also breathable, flexible, and robust.
Researchers from mycelium leather companies like Bolt Threads, MycoWorks, and Mycotech are learning how to take advantage of the sustainable nature and resilient structure of mycelium. And they have found ways to grow mycelium at scale indoors, using organic sawdust waste from wood mills as food for the fungi.
Thus, the waste of the wood mills gets turned into something useful, and it is a highly cost-effective way of acquiring raw materials. As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
How Do They Make Mushroom Leather?
There are two main ingredients:
- the mushroom spores; and,
- the sawdust in which the mushroom spores grow.
First, the sawdust which, as mentioned above, is gathered from wood mills, undergoes a deep clean with steam. This is to remove any kind of bacteria that could contaminate the mycelium.
The cleaned sawdust is then mixed with grain that has already been colonized by mycelium grown from the spores, or seeds of mature mushrooms.
By growing their “crop” in a controlled environment indoors, mycelium growers can tweak the temperature and humidity. By optimizing these factors, mycelium strands will grow more quickly and can be harvested within a few days.
Companies monitor the quality of their output closely, testing samples for any imperfections. The raw mycelium leather is then sold directly to fashion producers. where it is finished according to the producers’ needs.
Forward-thinking companies like Stella McCartney, Lululemon, Kering, and Adidas are collaborating to spread the word about mycelium leather and to create new products around the world.
In 2021, French luxury brand Hermès partnered with MycoWorks to make the first product out of mycelium leather. The handbag, named Sylvania, looks and acts like the original Victoria-style bag. The mycelium leather for the Sylvania is produced in the MycoWorks facility.
It is then tanned, shaped, and finished in France by the Hermès craftsmen to further refine its strength and durability.
Adidas also has a long-term goal of creating a renewable future, one where products are made using materials developed from natural ingredients. Their stated goal is to move away from the use of finite, fossil fuel-based resources that deplete the planet.
Renewability was the goal behind their popular Stan Smith shoe, which is made using Bolt Thread’s mycelium-based material. The production of this shoe was a major step forward in their bold ambition of creating footwear products that are truly made with nature in mind.
The Future of Mycelium Leather
The price of mycelium leather at the end of 2022 was about $30 per square foot, which is about the same price as premium calf leather. With increased scale, that cost will drop significantly. But it won’t come easily. Companies will need to redesign and reengineer the manufacturing process for this completely new material category. And ensuring adequate supply is one of the key variables to ensuring mass market adoption.
Although mycelium leather is not yet a mass-market material, the Hermès handbag and the Adidas Stan Smith shoe are proof that sustainable materials have a big place in the future of fashion.
As a planet and as a civilization, we must learn to work with nature rather than against it, and put more effort into finding and responsibly creating innovative solutions with resources that renew at a sustainable pace. This is just the first step to replacing all the harmful and non-sustainable materials in your closet, and to creating an animal-free fashion industry.
To learn more about mushroom leather, check out the video below on our YouTube channel.
And check out the other videos on our YouTube channel to learn more about mushrooms.
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