Vegan leather alternatives are not just a fashion trend, but they could also teach us about waste and consumption.
Alternatives to leather made from vegan ingredients could help save more animals than just the animals. Scientists behind the latest fashion must-have, the “mushroom-leather” handbag, believe mycelium, which is a material made from fungi, can be engineered so that it feels and looks like sheepskin or calfskin.
Before a talk at Oxfordshire’s Business of Fashion Voices conference, Dr Matt Scullin, CEO of MycoWorks biomaterials company, predicted that mushroom leather could become a sustainable gamechanger. He said, “unlocking the future of design which starts with the material, and not the object.”
Fine Mycelium is a patent-pending material that can be grown from fungi within trays in just weeks. It replicates leather’s appearance and feels while outperforming it in strength, durability, and endurance. This material was recently featured in a Hermes handbag.
It can trigger the same emotions as animal leather. It feels rare and has a hand-feel. Scullin believes that both the technology as well as the mindset of carbon neutral, made-to-order mushroom skin could be revolutionary on a planet with finite natural resources. This could have implications for manufacturing innovation beyond fashion.
Merlin Sheldrake will also be present at the conference, who is author of Entangled Lives. How Fungi Shape Our Futures, Change Our Worlds and Make Our Worlds. Sheldrake is a biologist and will join Vivienne Westwood’s lineup. Tommy Hilfiger’s designer friends are also there. “I am interested in talking to people in the creative industries about the possibilities of fungi to help open the mind for new ideas.” “I’m excited to help the fashion industry become more sustainable. He said that fungi has the potential to solve some of our problems.”
Sheldrake views fashion’s interaction with mushroom leather in a way that “fungi can be used as an analogy to thinking creatively and sustainably.” The ability to grow mushrooms leather in small pieces can eliminate the need to cut room waste. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, bovine leather is more environmentally damaging than any other fabric due to the gas emissions and deforestation associated with animal rearing.
According to the Statista Consumer Market Outlook Luxury Leather Goods Report 2019, leather goods account for 15% of the luxury market. Sustainable alternatives could have a significant effect on fashion’s footprint.
Bolt Threads, a California-based biomaterials firm that works with mushroom leather, was also a collaborator with Stella McCartney to create a handbag at Paris Fashion Week. It is currently developing products with Adidas.
Although mushrooms may not be a popular choice for their glamorous appearance, fungi-based skin has been embraced by high-fashion designers who use double-face cashmere and silk organza. However, in order for the material to have a significant impact on sustainability, it must be affordable. Scullin says, “We work with luxury fashion because they are ahead in sustainability. These brands are able to think big and think long-term.”
MycoWorks is looking to partner with mass-market brands and is currently opening a second US factory. The material’s scale allowed it to be used in high-end fashion and in car upholstery. However, bioscientists warn that sensitive design could compromise some of its environmentally-friendly properties. It would be a disservice to the material’s potential benefits if a jacket or handbag is made with hardware, trims and adhesives that are not biodegradable. Scullin says that brands can be made biodegradable, but the industry has a problem with sustainability when it comes to final products.
Sheldrake believes one of the most important lessons from studying fungi was “reforming our thinking about waste.” Our planet would be covered in animals and plants if fungi didn’t do what they do. He believes that mushroom leather could have a far greater impact than a new It bag. “Consumers have been taught to see the world in a straight line. We buy, use and then throw away. Many levels of fashion thinking can be influenced by fungi. This is not only about material innovation. It’s also about culture and the ability to make endless new things. What can we learn from thinking in terms nature and cycles instead?”