Leather is a fashion staple and has been for a long time – approximately seven thousand years, in fact. For the vast majority of this time, leather has been made out of animal skin, though the early twentieth century saw the development of faux leather made from petroleum-based plastic. The conversation surrounding leather has been generally dominated by leather purists, who think faux leather can’t compare to the real thing, and consumers with ethical or sustainability concerns. These two groups have proven impossible to reconcile – until now?
Leather is such a popular material largely due to its durability and versatility. Clothing, shoes, accessories, furniture – there are leather or faux leather products available in all of these categories and more. But as the climate crisis continues to worsen and more consumers are turning their minds (and buying power) to sustainable options, the question of whether faux leather is sustainable enough has arisen. Simply put, the plastic that faux leather is made from, PVC, is not biodegradable and is created using fossil fuels, which pollute the environment and impact our health. On the other hand, animal leather stems, of course, from animals such as cattle, the farming of which also has a massive environmental impact.
So, where do mushrooms come into the picture?
Five years ago, companies Mycoworks and Evocative Design patented leather materials derived from fungus – or, more specifically, from mycelium, which is the structure that forms mushrooms as we recognise them. But instead of growing into mushrooms as it does in nature, mycelium can be harnessed and coaxed into customisable growth patterns, capable of forming complex structures like the panels of a building – or sheets of leather. Well, it can become leather after the thick mats of mycelium are treated, a process that takes only a few weeks in its entirety.
This sustainable alternative looks and feels like the traditional leather sourced from animals and boasts a similar durability, with the added advantages that the material can be fine-tuned according to required thickness and tensile strength. Impressively, the short process of growing mycelium mats doesn’t require fancy technology: in fact, it can be carried out anywhere, doesn’t need light, and can be done with minimal equipment. But it can also be scaled for industrial mass production, potentially enabling the broad production and consumption of a natural, sustainable material.
Why aren’t we already using mushroom leather?
It’s a good question, because there don’t seem to be downsides to using mycelium leather in the place of animal or synthetic leather. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the technology is really new. People are still working out how best to organise and standardise the process to produce consistent materials, and consumers aren’t always keen to make the switch from traditional materials. However, there are a few brands bringing mushroom leather into the spotlight!
Adidas has released shoes using this leather alternative, which are wholly vegan, and luxury brand Hermés has announced a reimagined version of their classic Victoria travel bag – though it will be available simultaneously in ‘more classic materials’, such as canvas and calfskin. Fashion designer Stella McCartney, who is well-known for her commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, showcased a world first last month with her mycelium leather pants and bustier, which were crafted using Bolt Threads’ Mylo material.
So, what next?
While we shouldn’t expect animal and synthetic leather to disappear from the market any time soon, hopefully more and more fashion brands will start seriously planning to work with mycelium leather, working with natural materials to protect the natural environment. As it stands, mushroom leather is a really promising innovative material, and we can’t wait for it to go mainstream.
If you liked this article, you might like our feature on Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who has developed a way to make ceramic tiles out of old clothing and glass waste.
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