Industries throughout the world are seeking ways to create products that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Many are also trying to reduce their reliance on animal-based products. The food industry is a perfect example of this, with a push toward plant-based products that create “fake” beef and chicken. But the food industry isn’t the only one with these incentives. Surprisingly, the fashion industry is also pursuing such endeavors, particularly when it comes to leather. Known as bio-based fabrics, scientists and startups alike are exploring sustainable leather alternatives. And as it turns out, mycelium leather products are gaining quite a bit of interest.
You may have heard of magic mushrooms, but mycelium is different. Mycelium is essentially the structural material that comprises mushrooms, and notably, it can be used to create sustainable leather alternatives. One major company involved in mycelium leather products is MycoWorks, which has received significant funding as of late. Numerous companies in the fashion sector are starting to collaborate with MycoWorks, but they are not alone. Other industries that traditional use leather goods are also exploring these bio-based products as well. Though the price point of mycelium leather products is still on the high side, it is expected to come down over time. And this plus its other features will likely be huge selling points.
“MycoWorks can achieve the same quality and performance as animal leathers without the need for any sort of plastics,” – Matthew Scullin, CEO, MycoWorks
The Leather and Alternative Leather Industry Today
In 2021, the total leather goods market was estimated at $400 billion. By 2030, it is expected to exceed $720 billion. Understanding this, consumer demand for these products remain high, especially when it comes to fashion and footwear. Unfortunately, animal-based leather isn’t environmentally friendly, and it is also not always predictable. These are features that have led companies in search of alternative sustainable leather alternatives. But to date, such alternatives have mainly involved plastics-based options. And it is increasingly evident these are not really sustainable or environmentally friendly.
As a result, mycelium leather products began to appear around a decade ago. MycoWorks formed in 2012 after artist Philip Ross and UC Berkely PhD student Sophia Wang began experimenting with designs. They called their mycelium leather products “Reishi,” which is the Japanese term for the genus of mushrooms. Since that time, they have consistently grown, recently receiving $125,000 in funding this past January. As a result, MycoWorks is constructing a 150,000 square-foot facility in South Carolina where they plan to scale operations. Being able to make six square-foot sheets of Reishi at a time, they expect to make millions of these annually. Based on the growing interest in sustainable leather alternatives, this couldn’t come at a better time.
“I asked one of my [designer hat] seamstresses and she couldn’t tell the difference between Reishi and real leather.” – Nick Fouquet, French-American Hat Designer
The Process of Making Mycelium Leather Products
Naturally, the process involving mycelium leather products requires first producing mycelium. Given the demand over the last several years, MycoWorks now produces its own and maintains its own strains in cold storage. The mycelium is then combined with sawdust waste from sawmills and placed in trays. And as the sawdust decomposes, the mixture forms into thin sheets that they call Reishi. It is at this stage that the sheets can be customized based on clients’ preferences. In some, even other fabric materials like cotton might be added. The final step then involves the tanning process, which is performed typically by outside tanneries.
These mycelium leather products are preferred because they offer sustainable leather alternatives. The process itself has fewer steps in production, which means it has a much lower environmental impact. Likewise, the tanning process does not require chromium, which is known to be harmful to the environment. But more importantly, these specific sustainable leather alternatives can be produced in a highly consistent and predictable manner. This inherently offers some enhanced efficiencies for the producer of mycelium leather products and clients as well. These aspects have notably contributed to its growing appeal.
“The companies working with mycelium are not trying to duplicate what an animal hide does but are creating something that has the softness and resiliency of leather and something that is, fascinatingly, also more controllable.” – Frank Zambrelli, Executive Director of the Responsible Business Coalition at Fordham University in New York
A Growing List of Clients
As noted, the largest user of leather goods is the fashion industry with footwear designers leading the way. Therefore, it’s not surprising that MycoWorks has received requests from some industry players. One of the notable companies that has used mycelium leather products is Hermes. In past months, it has included mycelium leather in its Victoria handbags. Similarly, celebrity hat designer, Nick Fouquet, has also designed fashionwear with these sustainable leather alternatives. And as MycoWorks scales operations, and its prices decrease, many more are likely to make similar requests.
While interest in sustainable leather alternatives from fashion companies is expected, other businesses may be more surprising. This is part of a more targeted focus on companies involved in environmental, social and governance criteria. Ligne Roset, a high-end furniture maker, has also been collaborating with MycoWorks and their mycelium leather products. Also, GM Ventures, the investment arm of General Motors, has also been involved in exploring partnerships. GM is quite intrigued by the product and its capacity to create a more sustainable product. But it is equally interested in its ability to generate consistency and predictability in production. It is important to note that the automotive industry is the second largest consumer of leather-based goods.
Bio-Based Leather Competition
When it comes to mycelium leather products, MycoWorks is not alone. There are other companies who are also exploring these sustainable leather alternatives. Bolt Threads is another one who has also attracted notable clients in the fashion industry. These include Stella McCartney, Adidas, and Lululemon. And it is also working with Mercedes in a similar way that MycoWorks is collaborating with GM. In addition, scientists are looking at other bio-based sustainable leather alternatives using pineapple and cactus. These developments offer a great hope for the future, especially if prices of these processes and materials decrease. The innovative solutions these businesses are providing will undoubtedly change the future of the leather industry in very positive ways.