Vegan mushroom leather is a pioneer in leather alternatives made from the upcycling of low-cost agricultural and forestry by-products, chitinous polymers, and other polysaccharides, extracted from fungi, grown using a natural and carbon-neutral biological process.
After physical and chemical treatment, sheets of fungal biomass make a semi-synthetic, leather-like material that shows properties similar to real leather made from animal skins, but is cheaper, much better for the environment, and more ethical.
Many fashion companies use affordable and vegan leather alternatives today. But most artificial leathers contain materials from plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), thermoplastic polymers that depend on chemicals derived from fossil fuels.
Fungi-derived leather substitutes are becoming increasingly popular for many good reasons, such as being CO2 neutral as well as biodegradable at the end of their lifespan, as opposed to Piñatex pineapple leather, another popular bio-based vegan leather alternative.
They make ethical and environmentally responsible fabrics that fully meet consumer aesthetic and functional expectations, as explained by an international team of researchers from the University of Vienna, Imperial College London, and RMIT University in Australia.
Adidas, Lululemon, Stella McCartney, and Gucci parent company Kering recently invested in this innovative material through the US biotechnology startup Bolt Threads making vegan mushroom leather called Mylo.
They established a new business consortium to spend seven-figure sums to boost production capabilities and create a supply chain allowing it to become commercially viable.
Here is everything you need to know about vegan mushroom leather and how it fares against real leather and other leather alternatives.
What is vegan mushroom leather?
Vegan mushroom leather is an artificial or semi-synthetic leather made from fungi and offers an ethical alternative to real leather.
Fungi and polypores have been traditionally used for making skinlike fabrics and accessories in Europe for centuries.
Papermakers first discovered in the 1950s the idea of using fungi biomass to make paper-like materials with a polymer called chitin, found in the cell walls of fungi.
US companies MycoWorks and Ecovative Design first patented vegan mushroom leather technologies around 2015, using the root-like structure of mushrooms, the web of branching, threaded growths, called mycelium, which is found under the ground and contains the same polymer found in crab shells.
Mycotech is another company based in Bandung in Indonesia that grows mushroom since 2015. It's a certified Benefit Corporation since 2019 making a vegan leather called Mylea by binding agricultural waste with mushroom mycelia.
Vegan mushroom leather is more sustainable and healthier than real leather. It's a non-toxic and animal-free material now used in high-quality fashion products such as shoes, wallets, and bags.
The bio-based material has the potential to empower farmers by taking advantage of agricultural waste. It combines sustainability and affordability by offering textiles made from renewable resources.
Fungal mycelium represents the vegetative growth of filamentous fungi. It's a mass of elongated tubular biomass that, within a couple of weeks, can be harvested and physically and chemically treated to make vegan mushroom leather.
The resulting material generally contains a stabilizer such as chitin and other polysaccharides such as glucans.
One of the biggest challenges to making fungi-derived leather is achieving quality, homogeneous mycelium mats with uniform growth and consistent thickness, color, and mechanical properties, according to research scientists.
Overall, vegan mushroom leather offers a unique opportunity for sustainability-conscious consumers and companies, as well as the vegan community.
"Renewable, bio-derived clothing is a growing market, and fungal leather is becoming a promising new frontrunner in the quest for sustainable and ethical clothing."
- Dr. Mitchell Jones, Doctor of Natural Sciences, University of Vienna
"Substantial advances in fungi-based leathers and the growing number of companies that are producing them suggests that this new material will play a considerable role in the future of ethically and environmentally responsible fabrics."
- Alexander Bismarck, Professor of Materials Chemistry, University of Vienna
Vegan mushroom leather applications
Vegan Mushroom Leather Handbag | © Bolt Threads
Vegan mushroom leather makes great shoes, bags, wallets, clothes, accessories, and upholstery. Many manufacturers use this innovative material to create household items or garments for the fashion industry.
In the textile and apparel industry, you can usually found vegan mushroom leather in the same applications as real leather. You can also use it for paper and foam-like construction applications, such as insulation materials.
Eco-conscious designer Stella McCartney unveiled a purse made from vegan mushroom leather in 2018 using Bolt Threads material Mylo, a leather alternative made from mycelium.
Mylo Leather Purse | © Stella McCartney
She displayed her fungi-based handbag in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Fashioned from Nature” exhibit but didn't make it available for sale to the general public. She still plans to further investigate this sustainable technology in the future.
“Once you take that technology and innovation and you marry it with luxury fashion and design and creativity, there’s no end to what magical madness you can create.”
- Stella McCartney, an English fashion designer, tells Forbes.
As new apparel and home furnishing applications develop, the market for vegan mushroom leather is expected to rise in the coming years.
It could make ethical and cruelty-free clothes, such as coats, jackets, blazers, shirts, pants, parkas, vests, skirts, dresses, as well as furniture, seats, sofas, cushions, drapes, home decor, curtains, and more.
Vegan mushroom leather is not only an ethical material for developing farming communities but also a more sustainable alternative to aminal-derived leather mass-production.
What's wrong with real leather
Leather is a material made from the skin of animals and commonly used for fashion. The industry brutally slaughters billions of animals every year to make clothes, shoes, handbags, and other accessories.
The leather industry also kills many other types of animals, such as seals, sheep, deer, alligators, snakes, zebras, sharks, even cats, and dogs.
It even traps and kills endangered species. The leather trade threatens many animals that should be protected, including a vast number of reptiles, kangaroos, ostriches, beavers, wild cats, bears, antelopes.
To produce leather, animals suffer immense pain. They are trapped, caged, and often skinned alive. They lived in inhumane conditions, in crowded environments, deprived of liberty, and subjected to painful treatments.
Traditional leather brings ethical issues as well as environmental and health issues.
Livestock farming and leather tanning are damaging to the environment, ecosystems, and human health. They are responsible for massive deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
The processing of animal-derived textiles requires tons of harmful chemicals that pollute rivers, water sources, and soils as they are often released untreated into the nearby environment.
Leather isn't just a byproduct of animals slaughtered for their meat. Buying leather goods doesn't prevent waste from the meat industry. The leather industry is already very lucrative on its own.
Skins and hides are the most valuable parts of animals, as reported by Bloomberg. Very young animals that have smooth skin, no scratch or parasite yet make the highest quality and most expensive leather.
Fortunately, more and more conscious consumers around the world avoid clothes, bags, shoes, and accessories made from animals. They choose cruelty-free alternatives, such as mushroom leather made from natural resources.
What we choose to wear has enormous social and environmental impacts. Animal-derived materials are unethical and cause irreversible damage to the environment and human health.
Fashion can be stylish, high-quality, affordable, and animal-free. No animal should have to suffer to make beautiful and functional clothes. Animal cruelty has no place in modern society.
How is vegan mushroom leather produced?
The latest research on this innovative leather-like material uses button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) and bracket fungus (Daedaleopsis confragosa) to produce sustainable substitutes.
Vegan mushroom leather comes from fungal biomass mycelium, elongated fungal threads growing into a sheet, fed with upcycled low-cost agricultural and forestry by-products like sawdust that would otherwise go to waste.
Mushrooms grow in a shallow tray in a carbon dioxide-rich environment to stop fruiting body and spore formation and force the mycelium filaments to spread outwards in search of oxygen.
They form a thick mat, which is then treated with acids, alcohols, and dyes to modify its properties. After being compressed, dried, and embossed, the end result resembles leather in mechanical and tactile properties.
Muskin is another 100 % vegetable layer alternative to animal leather, invented by the company Zero Grado Espace, a research and prototyping organization based in Montelupo, Fiorentino.
It comes from the Phellinus ellipsoideus, a kind of big parasitic fungus that grows in the wild and attacks the trees in the subtropical forests.
Muskin is produced with natural penicillin substances to limit bacteria proliferation and without any toxic chemicals. It's a PETA Approved Vegan material with a production capacity of 40-50 sq.meters/month currently at Grado Zero Innovation.
US biotech company Bolt Threads also used mycelium cells to create its vegan mushroom leather called Mylo. Mushrooms are fed with sawdust and other organic material and placed on square growing mats.
There, they grow into a foamy layer in a humidity- and temperature-controlled environment before finally being harvested after a few weeks.
The mycelium biomass is further processed into a sheet of thin, flexible, leather-like material. Sustainable companies can then work with this material and dye it in a multitude of colors without any harmful chemicals.
Mylo Mushroom Leather Sheet | © Bolt Threads
"What we are trying to do with Mylo is scaling it beyond where biomaterials have been relegated to one-offs or museum pieces and instead, making it a material that millions and tens of millions of people can wear every day. [...] In our current stage, we are dependent on large brands to help subsidize the massive costs it takes to figure out how to make Mylo on a commercial scale. [...] These companies are enabling us to develop a process that will eventually produce a high-quality leather alternative at a comparable price to leather hide but that's going to take a few years."
- Jamie Bainbridge, VP of Product Development at Bolt Threads, tells Dezeen.
Cultivating mushrooms in a controlled environment is a great way to manufacture fungal substitutes for materials such as plastic, wood, rubber, and leather.
Designer Maurizio Montalti and microbiologist Han Wösten from the Netherlands have also been using non-toxic oyster mushrooms that thrive on dead plant materials to create fungi-based products for years.
However, a lot of education is necessary to drive a wider acceptance of vegan mushroom products since many people aren't aware of its benefits.
"I think as a society we detached ourselves from the acceptance [of fungus] because of the whole cleaning mania that developed in the 20th century, which brought good gains but also caused us to live aseptic lives and regard fungus as something dangerous."
- Maurizio Montalti, multidisciplinary designer, researcher, artist, and engineer
Vegan mushroom leather is still a recent innovation and is bound to face problems before adoption. Fungi-based products alone won’t be enough to solve the global sustainability crisis but are a welcomed step in the right direction.
Vegan mushroom leather properties
Mushroom Leather Sneakers | © na-2
Fungi-based leather has similar physical properties to animal-based leather. It has a soft hand feel, similar to suede to the touch with a cork-like texture.
But vegan mushroom leather is cheaper to grow, more environmentally friendly, compostable, and biodegradable.
The growth of fungi is effectively carbon neutral since it captures and stores carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere.
Researchers also reveal that woven and felted fabrics are sometimes intertwined with mycelium to increase tensile and tear strength.
Vegan mushroom leather is also a thermal insulator that absorbs damp and releases it immediately. It's lightweight, transpiring, water-repellent, and non-toxic.
Mushroom leather is an environmentally friendly material because it can be treated without using polluting substances.
Fungi-based products have high strength, flexibility, breathability, water-resistance, and cost-competitiveness.
Vegan mushroom leather can be easily printed on, stitched, embossed, embroidered, and cut for different design uses.
The leather-like material is easy to care for, durable, and available in a wide variety of styles, patterns, colors, and finishes.
The material is a non-woven, ethical, fair, cruelty-free, and sustainably sourced innovative textile.
Mushroom leather is a greener and animal-friendlier alternative to leather and petroleum-based materials. It looks and feels like luxurious leather, very pleasant to the touch, with good resistance to wrinkling and pilling.
How to care for mushroom leather
Taking good care of your clothes is one of the best ways to live more sustainably and ensure that they last longer. Give special attention to mushroom leather, as the material is delicate and easily damaged.
Extend the life of your clothes and the time you can wear them by taking good care of them and avoiding common mistakes. You can limit pressure on natural resources, reduces waste, pollution, and emissions.
Wax your mushroom leather items before use and thereafter regularly by using eco-friendly, natural wax to keep them in great condition. Waxing the material adds protection and a soft patina.
After waxing, leave the product in a warm place for at least a day before use. Then rub it gently with a soft cloth.
Before washing mushroom leather, read the care instructions that can be found on the care tag. This way, you can easily determine if the fungi-based item is washable.
Pure mushroom leather generally needs to be hand washed. Use a damp soft cloth or sponge to clean any soiling in cold water.
To preserve the quality of your garment, it's best to wash products made of mushroom leather with cold water. It saves energy and prevents fabrics from melting.
Do not place fungi-based products in the washing machine.
Don't use any chlorine-based or strong detergent either.
To avoid dye bleeding, make sure to soak the material for the least amount of time.
The more sustainable way of drying your clothes is to hang them to dry.
Do not dry mushroom leather in a tumble drier. It has a low thermal resistance and will melt under high temperatures. The material dries out if you use heaters or similar hot items.
Place it on a line in fresh air rather than using a dryer. It preserves the quality of your garments and saves an enormous amount of energy, carbon emissions, and money.
You can also lay the fabric down on a towel for a while, then flip it over. Or you can hang it up on a hanger to help it dry naturally.
Ironing mushroom leather will damage the fabric. The material can easily melt, fade, and dry out.
Only iron your clothes when it's necessary and through a damp cloth.
Always select the lowest temperature possible to prevent any damage.
Mushroom leather doesn't resist chemicals very well. Keep chemical-based glues, perfume, and nail polish remover, and alcohol-based solvents far away from clothes made of modal textiles.
Don't use acetone or organic solvents to remove stains either. They will dissolve the fibers and cause irreversible damage to the garment.
Is mushroom leather sustainable?
Unlike animal-based leather and synthetic alternatives, producing fungi-based leather uses no hazardous chemicals and releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Vegan mushroom leather is more sustainable than real leather and other petroleum-based alternatives.
It's durable, flexible, and at least partially biodegradable if not fully compostable, unlike synthetic leather alternatives such as polyurethane or PVC, that take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
Petroleum-based thermoplastic polymers such as polyurethane generally aren't biodegradable. Polyurethanes require a unique set of design rules and properties to be biodegradable, according to the latest research.
They need biocompatible components, bioactivity, and a high degradation rate to decompose quickly. They are typically prepared from polyester polyols, aliphatic diisocyanates, and chain extenders.
Plastic-based fake leathers are still popular because they are durable and very cheap to manufacture.
But as conscious consumers become more interested in how their clothes are made, vegan mushroom leather is bound to have a bright future.
The innovative material requires fewer resources to produce than animal-derived leather, including land, water, chemicals, and energy. It has many environmental benefits such as reduced carbon emissions and pollution.
It also avoids the use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals used in animal leather production and has none of the wastage of leather caused by the shape of the animal's skin.
Mushroom can be grown anywhere to produce vegan leather-like materials since the mycelium roots are used and not the mushrooms themselves.
Mushroom farming doesn't require light, converts waste into useful materials, and stores carbon by accumulating it in the growing fungus.
Ethical fashion brands using mushroom leather
Vegan mushroom leather is still in its infancy. Only very few sustainable fashion brands use fungi-based materials in their new collections.
Here are some of the fashion brands using vegan mushroom leather or planning to use it very soon:
- Stella McCartney, a British apparel brand selling clothing, shoes, bags, and accessories for men, women, and kids.
- Adidas, a German multinational sportswear manufacturer that creates shoes, clothing, and accessories.
- ZVNDER, a German vegan and sustainable company specialized in mushroom leather accessories.
- nat-2, a luxury state of the art sustainable footwear brand based in Munich, Germany.
- Gucci, a leading luxury brand of fashion house based in Florence, Italy.
- Lululemon Athletica, an athletic apparel retailer domiciled in Delaware and headquartered in Vancouver.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.