Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Stella McCartney
Biotech startups Bolt Threads, Ecovative and Zvnder have discovered how to make the most of mycelium — creating high-quality, sustainable versions of ubiquitous materials such as leather.
Emerging around 5,000 BC, leather
has survived the test of time thanks to its durability, comfort and aesthetic
appeal. A 2021
undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that roughly
1.4 billion animal hides and skins were used in leather products during the year
2020; whilst another
study suggests the leather industry, worth nearly $408
billion in 2021, expects a compound annual growth rate of 6.9 percent between
2022 and 2030.
Global, industrial standards of the material’s production, however, have
significant environmental repercussions. Most of the world’s leather is a
by-product of the meat industry — which is responsible for the deforestation of
vast amounts of
the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs), land and water overuse, and the
pollution of the same. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
affirms that leather-producing factory farms are responsible for 70
of the pollution in national waterways.
The negative consequences of leather manufacturing also extend to human health
and wellbeing. In less-developed countries, the tanning industry is rife with
And, whereas leather in a pre-industrialized environment was tanned with
plant-based chemicals, most US leather manufacturers use chromium — a
The alternative leather market has exploded in recent years — first, with mostly
petroleum-based materials; but more recently, with innovative, plant- and
that are markedly better for both people and planet. And a cluster of innovative
materials has centered around the humble yet versatile mushroom; or, more
precisely, mycelium — the tiny, incredibly strong threads that make up the root
network of fungi.
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Biotech startups including Bolt Threads, Ecovative and ZVNDER have
discovered how to make the most of mycelium — integrating their natural
intelligence into the production of familiar materials people have enjoyed
throughout history, but with alternative and sustainable origins. The promise of
the resulting materials has already yielded widespread recognition, several
awards, and industry-leading partnerships and sponsorships.
Image credit: Ecovative
Eban Bayer and Gavin McIntyre co-founded
Ecovative in 2007, and quickly made a splash with
their mushroom-based wonder
positioned as a sustainable alternative to everything from plastic packaging to
building insulation. The New York-based company's latest venture,
is a division focused on designing, marketing and manufacturing vegan,
plastic-free, leather-like materials and foams for the fashion and automotive
industries that display the same durability, high-tensile strength, density and
texture as their animal-derived counterparts. These are produced in
AirMycelium™ growth chambers
consisting of vertical farms where mycelium is layered and grown on large format
sheets. In a few days, vast quantities of animal-free leather and other
materials are produced without the need for toxic chemicals or plastic,
minimizing the carbon footprint of the final product.
Although Forager hides and foams are not yet available on the market, the
product has attracted funding from several investors — including Viking Global
Investors — and led to the formation of the Fashion for Good
with apparel brands Bestseller, PVH, Reformation and
with the UK-based Magical Mushroom Company, has brought in $60 million
in additional financing that is being directed towards the study and discovery
of new materials, mycelium strands, and the construction of a larger production
facility; as well as the expansion of educational resources regarding mycelium
species and the delivery of a high-quality, eco-friendly alternative to leather.
Image credit: adidas
Emeryville, CA-based Bolt Threads first gained
attention with its fermented
Microsilk™, woven from yeast —
with which it snagged partnerships with brands including
The startup has since ventured into mycelium materials, launching its
Mylo™ brand of leather in 2018. Also produced
through vertical farming, Bolt’s process is powered by 100 percent renewable
energy and results in a product that is just as soft and supple as animal
leather, but much less hefty on the consumption of natural resources than its
conventional, bovine-based counterpart.
Mylo’s ‘UNLEATHER’ initiative has attracted
the attention of Stella McCartney, adidas, Lululemon and Kering —
now known as the Mylo Consortium — united in their mission to entice the fashion
industry away from its reliance on animal- and petroleum-based leathers.
Although Mylo products are also not yet widely available on the market, the
enterprise has launched several successful pilot products — including adidas' Stan Smith
Mylo™, the first-ever mycelium-based sneaker
(April 2021); and Stella McCartney’s Frayme
handbag (Summer 2022). Brands including Mercedes
and Tsuchiya Kaban are also
exploring Mylo’s potential.
Given that mycelium-grown leather alternatives are still in small-scale
production in comparison to conventional, animal-derived leather, it’s too early
to accurately evaluate the material’s environmental footprint. Bolt Threads says
it has conducted a preliminary impact assessment that points out significant
environmental benefits of Mylo products; but has yet to share the results of an
independent life cycle assessment, which it hopes to have available this year.
The company also acknowledges that
it has not yet achieved its goal of a 100 percent mushroom-based product that
matches consumer expectations for softness, strength and suppleness without the
help of plastic; Bolt says it will keep pursuing that goal.
Image credit: Zvnder
Meanwhile, Zvnder — a German startup also producing a
mycelium-based leather alternative called Fungiskin — claims its product is 100
percent natural, organic and cruelty-free. The business ensures this by keeping
production local and small, working with families from nearby Transylvania,
where original forests display a high occurrence of tinder sponges (its choice
strand of mycelium). This way, the company's experts can ensure that the trees
on which the mushrooms grow are cared for and protected over the years. The
company strives for zero waste, turning leftovers of Fungiskin into
“Fungi-fibers” that can be used when
processing paper and nonwovens.
Because of this small-scale production, each piece of Fungiskin is unique in
color, shape, thickness and texture. Staying local and small works wonders when
it comes to remaining sustainable — the challenges will begin if the company
attempts to scale to meet growing consumer demand for durable, sustainable,
animal-free alternatives to conventional leather.
Published Oct 13, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Nina Purton is the founder of Eco Writing — a startup providing blog marketing for projects and businesses with sustainability goals. With a background in English literature and a lifelong passion for eco-friendly practices, Nina started her journey with small initiatives which resulted in collaborations with larger projects and businesses. Nina now blends her knack for creativity, research skills, and knowledge to inspire innovative and healthier interactions with the natural environment.