Plant-based leathers have the potential to revolutionize the fashion industry. Now, MycoWorks, a California-based biotech company, has created a new eco-friendly, vegan leather derived from fungi. The leather turns mycelium—threads from the root structure of mushrooms—into a material that imitates the look and feel of animal-based leather, reports Jess Cartner-Morley for the Guardian.
"It's the first time that a company is able to produce a vegetal product which is matching or even exceeding the quality and durability and aesthetics of a natural one. It's a super achievement," Patrick Thomas, former Hermés CEO and a MycoWorks board of directors member, said in a statement.
While the material is mushroom-based, MycoWorks creates its rigid, patented material using engineered mycelium cells. As the cells grow into 3-D structures, they become densely intertwined, eventually forming a tough material, dubbed Fine Mycelium, which has the strength, durability, and performance of traditional leather, according to the MycoWorks website. The result differs from other types of vegan leather made with mushrooms. Most mushroom leather is made from a compressed solid foam that mycelium forms naturally, but without engineering, it lacks the same look and feel as other animal and synthetic leathers.
Fine Mycelium can be grown in trays in a short amount of time. These trays can be designed to fit a designer's exact specifications, eliminating any waste from excess scraps, the Guardian reports. After the Fine Mycelium is harvested, it is tanned and finished to look and feel like animal leather's unique grain. The result is the product MycoWorks calls Reishi, a leather that is processed using chromium-free chemistry, a chemical found in tannery wastewater, reports Frances Solá-Santiago for Refinery29.
The vegan leather has already made a high fashion debut. In March 2021, luxury fashion brand Hermés debuted their Victoria bag, which featured MycoWork's Fine Mycelium material, reports Olivia Rosane for EcoWatch. Other companies, including Adidas' with their Mylo-made Stan Smith shoes and Lululemon with their mushroom-based yoga products, have also jumped on the eco-friendly bandwagon, per Refinery29.
The use of plant-based leather comes during a time when scientists and innovators are trying to come up with solutions for the climate crisis and animal agriculture. Manufacturing bovine leather wreaks more havoc on the environment than any other type of fabric—even plastic-based leathers—because of deforestation and methane emissions connected to animals raised for leather and meat, the Guardian reports. Livestock alone make up nearly 15 percent of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions, EcoWatch reports.
Other plant-based leathers have already been in the works. Material companies Ananas Anam create a natural textiles called Piñatex from waste pineapple leaf fiber, and Adriano Di Marti invented Deserttex, a soft leather-like material derived from cactuses that can be used in the fashion and furniture industries.
However, some experts criticize mushroom-based leather because it is currently only available as a luxury item, such as double-face cashmere and silk organza. For the material to be a truly sustainable option and make a major impact, it would need to be accessible at a lower price point, reports the Guardian. Likewise, skeptics question whether mushroom leather companies can supply independent artisans with enough material to create products that uphold their traditional craftsmanship, per Refinery 29.
Still, Fine Mycelium is carbon-neutral, can be grown to order and provides a sustainable option for manufacturers seeking durable accessories made from long-lasting material, the Guardian reports.
"We have been trained as consumers to think in terms of a straight line whereby we buy something, use it, and throw it away. Fungi can inform thinking about fashion on lots of levels. This is about material innovation, but it's also about the culture of making endless new things, and what we can learn from thinking in terms of nature and of cycles instead," says biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Lives: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, to the Guardian.