Nalis: I’m Italian, which is my wholesale excuse for being old school—or as some might say “rigid”—about a bunch of stuff. Like not putting chicken on pasta or wearing all black at a daytime wedding.
One of the things that keeps a measure of how traditional I can be is that I think vegan leather—aka eco-leather, faux leather, or as I like to call it, “plastic” is a modern thing of the devil that needs to be rejected.
It doesn’t feel as good as leather. It doesn’t smell as good as leather. Plus, it’s very bad for the environment. Yes, leather is also bad for the environment, but at least that jacket I bought in London when the pound crashed after the Brexit vote will look good and lived-in for many years to come, while a fake leather one wouldn’t even have lasted until the Brexit deal. Except there is a new development in fake leather that could challenge my prejudices. Mushroom leather, or mycelium.
Fashion companies that are trying to have a less harmful impact on the planet swear by it. It’s recyclable. It’s biodegradable in fact, apparently very nice to touch and long-lasting.
So I did some investigative reporting and went to a few fancy stores in New York, hunting for mushroom leather clothing, which is made by fashion designer Stella McCartney.
I wanted to touch the material, maybe smell it, but I wasn’t able to find any. All mycelium products were sold out before most of the salespeople even got to see them in person. So, what is mushroom leather actually like? Is it worth the excitement?
Can you truly replace leather, or is it just hype? And will people be willing to pay as much, or more, than real leather for it?
I’m Annalisa Merelli, Nalis for short, your host of this season of the Quartz Obsession. Today, mushroom leather.
We have here Sofia Lotto Persio, who is an editor at Quartz, and she is also Italian but enthusiastic about innovative, sustainable materials. Welcome Sofia. Thank you for joining us and showing not all Italians are as rigid as I am.
Sofia: Hi Nalis. Thank you for having me. And I do agree with you that chicken on pasta is a big no-no, but I really hope that by the end of this conversation I will have converted you on the mushroom leather front.
Nalis: So were you successful in your mission to smell some mushroom leather in London?
Sofia: Unfortunately not. It’s been very disappointing. But that kind of gives you a sense of the stage of development of this very exciting but unfortunately still fairly immature product when it comes to market availability.
Nalis: Going from mushroom to clothing though isn’t exactly the most natural progression. And yes, it has the potential to take over the alternative leather industry—maybe leather in general? What’s the story there?
What’s the story behind mushroom leather?
Sofia: So mushroom leather has been in development for, I would say, the past decade, but the moment that it became a little bit more visible to people outside of the industry and just to consumers in general, has been in the past couple of years. I personally have seen it in the flesh, so to speak, in 2021, when I was in Glasgow to cover the UN Climate Conference, COP26, and the designer Stella McCartney had this exhibition put on at this really beautiful museum in Glasgow. And there were maybe a dozen different kinds of designs and products that Stella McCartney had developed with Bolt Threads, which is one of the biggest, probably, mycelium producers. And their product is called Mylo, their kind of mycelium leather.
And so, yeah, the range of products on display, which were behind plexiglass of sorts. So I couldn’t really touch it or smell it, which was kind of disappointing.
Nalis: So I actually did go to the Stella McCartney store here in New York City, and I asked a couple of salespeople if they had it, and they were like “No, we don’t have it, but it’s amazing!” And I was like “Oh, did you see it?” And they were like “No! We didn’t see it in person, but we did the training and we know it’s incredible.” And to me, the fact that they were so enthusiastic about it and they haven’t even seen it in person is quite telling of the excitement around it. Was there always so much excitement and interest into new leather products, and do you think that mycelium actually is worth the hype?
Why is there so much buzz around new leather products?
Sofia: I think there’s genuine excitement in the fashion industry for the development of alternative material to leather. The buzz was created a few years ago by one of the main companies that is developing this kind of alternative materials, and it’s called MycoWorks. And they had an event during New York Fashion Week in 2020 when they invited a bunch of industry people to come and see this material for themselves—see it, touch it, smell it, because those are all the senses that are very important when it comes to any kind of fabric. But specifically with leather and fake leather so to speak. And the buzz was real. I think what people were really excited about was how similar the mycelium leather looked and felt—and smelled, even—compared to animal leather. The problem with this kind of excitement is that the production capacity and the kind of availability to the market are still very minimal compared to the scale of leather production globally.
The global leather market is something like in the hundreds of billions of dollars in size. And obviously, as you mentioned earlier, it’s a product that’s been developed over the centuries, and so it’s extremely mature. It’s extremely fast at turning around the kind of quantities that it needs to satisfy demand, and that demand is only growing. So on one hand, leather is still a very big part of the revenue of some global fashion houses. And on the other hand, there’s also the development of fast fashion that is looking for cheaper materials. And that’s really pushed for the development of the kind of alternative leather or vegan leathers that you hate so passionately.
Nalis: So to me a big sticking point at the moment is that mushroom leather is a luxurious product. It’s very expensive and, you know, so far we’ve only seen it on celebrities or high-end fashion brands, and it’s weird because I don’t really associate mushrooms with something high end exclusive and sophisticated.
How to make mycelium leather
Sofia: Let me take a step back to talk about how you make mycelium leather. So, mycelium itself is the root-like structure of the fungi. It’s made up of, like, tiny little threads essentially. And if you want a visual representation of it, it’s the kind of thing that you will find on a decomposing strawberry or other kinds of organic matter that is past its consumption date. And it develops this little wafer, and that’s the mycelium, essentially.
And the way that that becomes leather is through a process that is not too dissimilar to what is done for actual leather, but it starts in a completely different kind of environment. So instead of being on a farm, you are in a dark forest or, more specifically for this kind of industrial production, in some sort of lab where the mycelial cells are put in bags, essentially, and are fed sawdust or other kinds of material that they can consume.
You just wait for them to grow, essentially. And then once they get to the kind of density that they need, so basically the cells will develop into this sort of cloud-like, foam-like materials. So one company described it as a “bag full of smashed marshmallows,” but it’s essentially become like a foamy little cloud of mycelium. So that process in itself is a lot cheaper and faster than raising an animal. Is it cheaper than making something out of oil? Probably not in that sense because of the economics of oil and all that, but hopefully oil will become more expensive in the future to the point where other kinds of resources will need to be considered. And at the same time mycelium leather will have become more widespread and will have gotten more investment so that it will become more accessible for producers, not just luxury houses, but all kinds of producers of leather goods, whether they’re clothes or bags or even insulation for your home.
Nalis: So when you started describing, you know, the mycelium leather, you were talking about, you know, a “cloud-like material” or “marshmallows,” like all pretty things. And when I actually looked into the production of mycelium leather, they show you the little beautiful structures of the mushrooms, you know, like the parts that are so, like, quite pretty. But then, it’s like, that’s actually mold, right? Is that a stretch to say that basically they’re made out of mold?
Sofia: That is one way to look at it, I reckon, but it’s actually quite beautiful to think that this is the structure that, yes, decomposes organic matter, but to feed it back into the soil. So it serves a really key part of the circle of life, and it is much better to think that you’re wearing something made of that, then something that comes from a dead animal, at the end of the day.
Nalis: But how does mycelium make it from the top of a rotting strawberry to a jacket?
How is mycelium manufactured into clothing?
Sofia: So once the foam is created, it gets compressed into this thin layer. And then that layer of what you might call leather at that point goes through a certain amount of processes, depending on different manufacturers, they have slightly different production mechanisms. So Bolt Threads, which makes Mylo, they use what they call the “green chemistry” process to give it the kind of characteristics that they want. MycoWorks says that they have this bioengineering solution that can be customized to create different levels of elasticity or like flexibility or shine and whatnot. So they tackle directly the DNA of the cells so that they end up looking different, according to what the company that wants to buy this leather needs.
But that’s really the secret sauce that each manufacturer will find, because in itself, the product from the foam will be kind of rigid and not particularly pleasing or easy to work with. And that’s really where the development of mycelium leather finds its first big obstacle because you do need to have that kind of know-how, to figure out what’s the key amount of additives or like products or processes to turn something that is a sheet of leather-like material into something that can be worked with at scale.
Nalis: So say we’re looking at a bunch of bags, some are leather, some are different types of vegan leather… Are we able to tell the difference, and if so, how?
How does mushroom leather compare to vegan leather?
Sofia: Well, anytime you’re buying something, check the label. First of all, especially luxury products should have a fairly good description of what they’re made of. If that information was not available to you, and you just have to rely on your eyes, your eyes might deceive you and it’s really hard to tell the difference. I think personally when it comes to any kind of material, touch is the most important sense. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what mushroom leather might feel like, because I’ve never had the pleasure to touch it. But I personally can sense the difference between plastic-based leather and animal-based leather because there’s just something about the feeling of it that is a little bit different. And then the other sense to engage with smell because animal-based leather has a very distinctive smell. And as far as I have heard, because again, I haven’t had the pleasure to smell mushroom leather, it does have a recognizable and similar leathery-like sensation.
Nalis: I actually did go around and, like, touch and smell a bunch of other eco-leather. And one thing that I found is that some of it was too nice to be leather! Like, I was fully expecting, you know, like, “I’ll go in, it will smell like plastic, it will be hard at the touch.” And then there were like all these buttery things that smell like nothing. And I’m like, “This can’t be leather.” You know? It’s like I feel like also there’s that, or like I wonder if with mushroom leather it will approximate closer to what leather actually is like, which is nice, but not that nice.
Sofia: Yeah. Hopefully it’ll be some sort of earthy feeling that makes you think that it comes from nature in one way or another, but that it doesn’t have that extra layer of bitterness that leather sometimes has.
Nalis: So it seems to me that there are maybe two reasons to look into eco-leather. So one is: It’s cheaper and leather is still pretty expensive. You know, we need to find a more affordable alternative. But then there’s an even bigger one, which is, you know, the fashion industry is terrible to the planet. It’s extremely harmful. And so maybe this is a genuine attempt to come up with something that is a little more sustainable and that’s something that we haven’t been able to achieve with leather yet. Do you think that’s the case, that this may be a solution to that problem?
The fashion industry’s contributions to global emissions
Sofia: That’s right. So fashion is one of the main industries in terms of contributing to carbon emissions globally. The World Bank has it as 10% of all global carbon emissions over a year. But, you know, obviously, give or take a few percentage points, but it’s one of the main sectors when it comes to emitting greenhouse gasses. And even though the fashion industry is super complex, it has so many different elements, there’s the production of the materials, there’s the way that they’re transported across the globe to be processed into clothes and then sold and then showed in fashion shows, and then in the stores… all of this contributes to the carbon footprint. But materials do contribute to the larger share of that carbon footprint. And therefore finding sustainable alternatives to materials is really key in driving down the overall carbon footprint of the fashion industry. Leather—it has been the biggest challenge to find eco-friendly alternatives for, because it is a very specific material that has qualities that are difficult to replicate… the way that it’s resistant, the way that it’s flexible and soft, and it can be applied to a whole different range of products. So footwear is, one of the main products that is made of leather, but then you also have furniture, car interiors are often made of leather when it comes to luxury cars. And then you also have a smaller percentage of clothing and other kinds of accessories.
Nalis: There’s a little bit of a paradox here, when it comes to leather and faux leather or alternative leathers compared to other fashion materials because it lasts forever but not in the way that you want it to, because it gets ruined so quickly, while on the other hand leather lasts for a really long time. But this is where mycelium leather could actually be the true revolution. Is that right?
Could mycelium leather be a true solution?
Sofia: Yes, the current vegan alternatives to animal leather are mostly made of plastic, petroleum-based plastic, of course. And that means that not only the base material is in itself a polluting element, but also it’s not biodegradable. And so when it stops being nice enough to wear, it ends up in a landfill, as you said. And even in the best possible scenario, when that material is made of recycled polyester, that is usually derived from plastic bottles, for instance, it still has that shorter lifespan. So all in all, even if some people may argue that that kind of alternative leather is better for the environment because it it doesn’t involve slaughter, it still creates long-term problems for the environment and for wildlife.
What’s really critical about mycelium leather and other kinds of plant-based alternative materials is that even if they were not to have the same kind of durability as animal leather, which they do—they can, they might, they try to—they will be biodegradable, and so they can be part of that circular economy and the circular processes that would be more sustainable than what we have right now.
Nalis: Here’s something that I was thinking. So I love cows. Love them. And I wear leather. And I don’t really think about the cows when I wear leather. That link is very broken in my brain. I think that at least part of the appeal of mushroom leather has to be in the fact that no animals are hurt in the making of the product. And I was wondering whether there’s any concerted effort to strengthen that link, you know, between what leather is, beyond the impact that it has on the environment, that is, where it comes from, the fact that it harms animals, and what you’re wearing. And so that’s what mycelium leather can really exploit to become a bigger product.
The cruelty-free case for mycelium leather
Sofia: It’s hard to understand what will drive certain people’s decisions in terms of buying one kind of clothing or one kind of product over the other. But I think there is growing awareness of not just the fact that leather is a product of a dead animal, but also that that animal in its lifecycle has emitted certain kind of greenhouse gasses and has contributed to overall climate change. That awareness is growing, and so that will definitely increasingly factor in the decisions that people make about their clothing.
I don’t know how big of a percentage those consumers are. I think they’re growing. I don’t know if they will become the majority of consumers. Right now, we’re not at a level where those kind of consumers can really influence decisions, but I don’t think there’s ever been as big of a group of people who are interested in understanding how something that they’re about to buy is made and what’s their life cycle and what’s it going to be, their environmental impact. I think that will increasingly factor in the definition of what we find beautiful.
Nalis: Thank you so much, Sofia, for being here with us today. It was so interesting to learn more about mushroom leather. I am now convinced that as soon as it becomes available and affordable, I will turn to it. So, huge breakthrough for me! I don’t know if for society, but you know, yay myself!
Nalis: And that’s our obsession, folks!
The Quartz Obsession is a podcast hosted by me, Nalis Merelli. Katie Jane Fernelius is our producer, and George Drake mixes and does sound design. Music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira.
Additional production support provided by multi-platform editor extraordinaire Susan Howson, research wizard Julia Malleck, and audience genius Ashley Webster. Shivank Taksali and Diego Lasarte are our natural born sound engineers.
Special grazie to our fantastic guest Sofia Lotto Persio, who’s showing the world Italians can embrace the future, too!
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