Meet the Next-Generation of Leather Alternatives: Mycelium 101

By Nicole Rawling
Nicole Rawling is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes the development of high-performance sustainable materials for the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries.

Leather’s impact on greenhouse gases and global warming

As a material, leather has a lot to recommend. It is durable, versatile, and aesthetically pleasing. As an industry, however, leather is rife with problems, from its significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous chemical pollution to its effects on tannery workers and the 1.4 billion animals that are used every year for the raw materials they provide. A new crop of innovators are rising to the challenge of creating materials that retain the positive qualities of leather but relegate the leather industry’s ills to the dustbin of history. These new alternatives are a far cry from the pleather of decade’s past, and they’re putting style and sustainability at the forefront.

The Driver bag made from mycelium leather in Mylo™ Unleather developed by Bolt Threads and designed by Chester Wallace.
The Driver bag made from mycelium leather in Mylo™ Unleather developed by Bolt Threads and designed by Chester Wallace.
Detail of the Driver bag made from mycelium leather in Mylo™ Unleather developed by Bolt Threads and designed by Chester Wallace. Image shows texture and softness of the material with contrasting buckskin-style Unleather with black detailing.
Detail of the Driver bag made from mycelium leather in Mylo™ Unleather developed by Bolt Threads and designed by Chester Wallace. Image shows texture and softness of the material with contrasting buckskin-style Unleather with black detailing.

Fungi as the basis for a new environmentally-friendly leather

Of these next-gen leather alternatives, mycelium-based products have been leading the pack in terms of media buzz and investment dollars, with a number of high-profile brand partnerships, flashy headlines in design and tech publications, and investments approaching $190 million to date. While mycelium leather is still in the early stages of development and commercialization, there are reasons to pay attention to the future of fungi in the materials industry. 

From an environmental perspective, mycelium leather outperforms bovine leather across a wide array of categories. While bovine leather production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation, mycelium is a powerful agent of carbon sequestration and soil regeneration. Mycelium grows on agricultural waste, effectively upcycling widely available and renewable biomass into a usable material. It is also biodegradable, and because it can be grown in sheets or in the exact 3D mold of the end product, it reduces waste in the production process. This is a heavy contrast with bovine leather, in which up to 80 percent of a cow hide by weight can end up in the waste stream because of the difficulty of dealing with irregular shapes and variable quality. By simplifying the supply chain and production process, mycelium leather could also do away with the abuse of workers and animals that has proven difficult to root out in conventional leather production.

The mycelium leather production process takes one to two weeks, compared to approximately two years for bovine leather production
The mycelium leather production process takes one to two weeks, compared to approximately two years for bovine leather production

Mycelium leather for future fashion, garments, footwear and furniture

On the points that consumers primarily care about, namely aesthetics, affordability, and accessibility, mycelium leather shows promise, though perfection is still a way off. Startups have recently produced mycelium products that are impressively similar to bovine leather in look and feel. Compared to many plastic or plant-based alternatives, mycelium leather is often much more pliable and can be folded without scoring, and as a plus, its growth structure lends a “grain” very similar to bovine leather when colored. On the performance side, innovators in the space are experimenting with different fungal strains, inputs, and processing techniques to improve durability and increase thickness for products like shoe uppers and upholstery.

In late 2020, Adidas’ CEO, Kasper Rorsted, announced the company’s intention to launch a mycelium leather sneaker
In late 2020, Adidas’ CEO, Kasper Rorsted, announced the company’s intention to launch a mycelium leather sneaker

The biggest problem in mycelium leather production today is, simply put, that there isn’t enough of it. There are five main startups that are publicly working on mycelium leather, with many more operating in stealth mode and seeking brand partnerships for a public launch. Late in 2020, Bolt Threads, maker of the mycelium leather Mylo, announced a partnership with Adidas, Stella McCartney, Lululemon, and Kering, with products expected to arrive this year. 

Innovators in Mycelium Leather
Bolt Threads: Mylo Unleather
Ecovative Design: MycoFlex
MYCL: Mylea
MycoWorks: Reishi Leather
Neffa: MycoTEX

Startups are focused on small scale production while they perfect their products for commercial launches, and small scale means steep prices. It’s virtually impossible for consumers to find mycelium leather as an option for their interiors today, even from high-end brands. But this technology is well-positioned for rapid expansion, and when it hits the market, it’s likely to make a splash. Brands and designers that engage with startups today have the opportunity to establish a leading position in this up-and-coming space and launch cutting-edge designs in a wide-open market. Those that do will not only win market share, they will have the chance to transform a polluting, extractive, and often exploitative industry into a regenerative one that respects humans, animals, and the planet.