Mushroom Leather: The Future of Fashion

Mushroom Leather: The Future of Fashion

Fungi— it really is fantastic isn’t it? If it’s not helping to treat depression and PTSD, providing us with spiritual awakenings, or tasting great in a risotto, it’s…. the latest fashion accessory? 

Here at Wholecelium we of course believe in the magic of mushrooms. However, their latest application is novel, even to us! Could the future of sustainable fashion be mushroom leather?

Increasingly Environmentally Conscious

When thinking about biker jackets and designer handbags mushrooms are probably the last thing you’d think of. This could soon change however. In recent times the hunt for sustainable and eco fashions has intensified, as consumers become increasingly environmentally conscious. With many new vegans, vegetarians as well as those who just want to cut down on animal products— the market for leather alternatives has grown. Ethical reasons apart, —whether for food or fashion— cattle farming is known to be one of the worst culprits for producing harmful greenhouse gasses. It seemed a no-brainer that alternatives needed to be found.

Enter ‘vegan’ leather. Various different synthetic polymers flooded the market, mimicking the look and feel of hide. In many cases they look great and are also cheaper to produce. However, there are difficulties with them too. Much like most other plastic products, the carbon footprint of these synthetic leathers is considerable. And, unlike leather they will not biodegrade. Many people who choose vegan leather for ethical reasons are also concerned with their impact on the environment. They neither want an animal to die for their clothes, or for their leather-look backpack to exist for hundreds of years in a rubbish tip. Weighing up the positives and negatives, many have returned to ‘natural’ leather, considering it less environmentally damaging. It’s a tricky choice.

Chitins Have A Use!

So, news that a new alternative is being cooked up comes as a welcome surprise. Five years ago, two companies, Ecovative Design and Mycoworks, patented fungus derived leather processes. However, people have been experimenting with fungal biomass for a while. Papermakers in the 1950s discovered that the polymer called chitin that forms fungal cell walls could be used to make paper. Interestingly for psychonauts, chitin is actually the part of shrooms that can make you feel queasy at the beginning of a psychedelic trip, as your body can’t digest them. So, it figures that it’s a pretty tough material. 

Underground Web

As mycology fans will know, the mushroom that sprouts from the earth is only a fraction of the complete fungus. Under the ground, a complex, root-like growth called mycelium forms that is much larger than the little shroom visible to you and I. It is this web that forms the basis for mushroom, or ‘mycelium’, leather. 

Environmental Brownie Points

Unlike a cow, which takes years to raise, mushroom leather can develop from a single spore to a complete product in a matter of weeks. It can also be easily dyed and embossed, making it as equally versatile as its competitors. Additionally, not only is the leather biodegradable, the mycelium itself can actually feed on waste products, doubling its environmental brownie points. 

A group of international material scientists who authored the new review on mushroom leather state,

“In addition to being more environmentally sustainable to produce than leather and its synthetic alternatives, as they do not rely on livestock farming or the use of fossil resources, pure fungi-biomass-based leather substitutes are also biodegradable at the end of their service life and cheap to manufacture.”

Scaling Up Production

Scaling up production, so this new material actually becomes viable through availability is essential. This however, does not seem to pose a problem as, although new, the process is much less complex than both farming and the synthesis of chemicals. In fact a Finnish company has recently formulated an industrial process to scale up manufacturing. 

Where Can I Get Some?

So with all this hype, I bet you’re gagging to know where you can get your hands on some hot new mushroom leather. Well, commercial products are expected to be on sale soon! Some prototypes were produced in Italy, the US and Indonesia last year; among them bags, shoes, watches and purses. Although some were pricey (with one of the handbags coming in at $500), these were prototype prices. Manufacturing cost research suggests that once production is scaled up, prices will become much more competitive. 

‘Considerable Role In The Future’

Alexander Bismark, one of the co-authors of the review paper adds,

“Substantial advances in fungi-based leathers and the growing number of companies that are producing them suggests that this new material will play a considerable role in the future of ethically and environmentally responsible fabrics.”

With many people working hard to take responsibility for their ethical and environmental impact on the planet, there is no better time for these kinds of innovations. Coming soon to a catwalk, high street store or boutique near you. Mushrooms? What can’t they do?

For the full review article, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, click here.

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