Illustrations by Elianna Pannakis and Diego Allison
Written by Parker Lynas, Vianey Sierra, Diego Allison, and Abbey Lehr
Leather, like any material used in the construction of a garment, is subject to ethical and environmental concerns. Many of these growing concerns involve animal cruelty, habitat destruction and waste mismanagement. Leather is known for durability and protective properties, yet mushroom mycelium leather is a viable comparison. Mycelium leather avoids the environmental implications associated with manufacturing animal leather, making it a key innovation in the movement toward sustainable material use. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock accounts for 14% of global greenhouse emissions, the majority of that belonging to cattle⁴.
Mycelium leather jackets could soon be the future of fashion.
Although not all of the cattle production produces leather, the ongoing creation of leather as opposed to recycling or reusing continues to chip into water and energy supplies. Despite the promises of new technologies in the industry, the tanning process continues to expose the harmful reality of producing leather. It is known that the leather tanning chemical Ammonium is toxic. Alternative chemicals, such as Chromium, should be more of a concern when it comes to tanning leather than ammonium¹. According to the study Impacts of Chromium from Tannery Effluent and Evaluation of Alternative Treatment Options, the report showed increased bioaccumulation rates in freshwater species located near the plant used for metal processing and tanning that released chromium¹. In addition to the chemical issues involved with producing leather for the fashion industry there is also a microparticulate problem. Particulate matter from the use of polymers to acrylic resin and other hydrocarbons can accumulate and pollute the atmosphere and water, causing negative effects on human and animal health¹.
Mushrooms create networks after they are exposed to sunlight. The networks can then be molded into any pattern.
Mycelium leather however, does not come with the same processes or negative effects that animal skin does. Mycelium is the network of mushroom roots, which contains mycelium cells. In order to create mycelium leather, mycelium cells are placed on a dish in a lab, and with enough cellulose-rich nutrients, the mycelium grows fibers called hyphae. The byproducts are then shaped into thin panels. After that, sawdust is then mixed with nutrients and mixed with mushroom spores in “bag logs” which are simply individual bags. These bags are left in an incubation room for the span of a month. After this period of time, the mycelium is harvested, treated and colored to appear as animal leather.
Another method allows the mycelium cells to grow on their own into the desired shape until they can be cut and tanned like the other method⁵(image below). Although fungi leather has been utilized and studied for various years now it is not yet readily available for consumers in stores. There is still much more research to be conducted on mycelium that will probably allow more items to be widely sold at an accessible price. This will allow conscious consumers across various economic levels to have access to animal leather alternatives.
Advocating for brands to implement mycelium into packaging is the first step we can take as consumers for using this new, innovative material.
Despite there not being that many fashion products made with mycelium currently, there are many ways we as consumers can mitigate the effects of leather production and advocate for more products to use materials like mycelium. By continuing to rewear the leather garments you already have at home, borrowing from a friend, or buying second hand leather garments you are able to limit these concerns. In fact, even after the garment serves its purpose, leather can be reconstructed into popular patchwork designs in entirely new garments. As for mycelium, more and more products are being made with this innovative material from product packaging to furniture. So, reaching out to your favorite brands and suggesting they swap plastic and styrofoam packaging for mycelium could be a great way to contribute to this upcoming material revolution.
Check out https://ecovativedesign.com/ for more information on mycelium and its uses!
¹ Impacts of Chromium from Tannery Effluent and Evaluation of Alternative Treatment Options – Alebel Abebe Belay
² This Very Realistic Fake Leather Is Made From Mushrooms, Not Cows – Eillie Anzilotti
³ Mushrooms Are Now the New Leather! – CNA Insider
⁴ Vegan leather made from mushrooms could mould the future of sustainable fashion – Mitchell P. Jones
⁵ Meet Mylo – Bolt Threads
⁶ When Fashion is Fungal – Washington Post