Animal Leather is out. Mycelium is in.
I have a confession to make: I own a leather jacket. Yes, even despite understanding the environmental impact of the leather industry, the ethical considerations involved, and the social impact of purchasing that particular jacket. It was purchased a long time ago, probably just because it was on sale, and definitely long before I knew what the impacts of this were.
But we’re in a new era, my friends! This is the era of mycelium (pronounced: mai·see·lee·uhm) leather, which refers to leather made from fungal root structures called mycelium. It’s a bio-based raw material that can be produced without the negative environmental impact and hazardous resource-intensive processes of animal leather.
Now wait a minute. Let’s back up here. First of all, why should animal leather be shunned in the first place? And if you already own an item with this leather, what should you do?
As you may know, the raw material for leather is the hide of an animal, usually cattle. After sourcing the skins, the material is cleaned, tanned, retanned, and finished. While this seems straightforwardly simple, there are several aspects of this process that make it problematic both for the environment and for the people involved.
Sustainable Shopping Made Simple
CARCINOGENS USED IN TANNING
In the tanning process, workers are often exposed to several known or suspected occupational carcinogens like chromium, arsenic, and organic solvents such as benzene, formaldehyde, and acetone. The exposure to chemicals like these has been suggested to result in the onset of a range of cancers, such as lung, bladder, kidney, pancreatic oral caboty, respiratory illnesses, and many more.
WATER POLLUTION, DEFORESTATION & ENERGY
According to UNICEF, over two billion people live in countries where water supply is inadequate and by 2040, roughly 1 in 4 children worldwide will be living in areas of extremely high water stress. This makes it crystal clear that we need to protect our water, and when it comes to the leather industry, one of the most water-intensive industries on earth, this is particularly important.
To list just a few of the major impacts of leather production, there is the pollution of waterways with toxic chemicals like chromium, leading to “dead zones” in marine ecosystems where no animal can survive to due the lack of oxygen; the soil degradation resulting from overgrazing cattle, which leads to these nutrients being washed away as it rains; and deforestation as a result of cattle ranching, which removes the carbon capture of trees, accelerating climate change.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WITH THE LEATHER YOU ALREADY OWN?
That said, it’s also possible that, like me, you purchased some leather before you were aware of all this and now you don’t know what to do. Firstly, let’s just assert that it’s clearly a matter of opinion how you proceed in this scenario. If you decide that the least wasteful thing to do is to continue using the leather products you own, you have come to a wise conclusion.
High-quality leather can last a long time, and while it’s preferable to not have bought it in the first place, it’s also important to not create unnecessary waste, especially if you are comfortable continuing to use the leather already in your wardrobe.
WHY MYCELIUM LEATHER?
Now that we’ve detailed the tragic side of leather, we can address the elephant in the room: Leather is stylish. Leather is chic. Leather is durable. Leather goes with basically everything. But…leather has a dark side. So what does the world of fashion do? Turn to mycelium.
Yes, that’s right. The root structures of the underappreciated fungi kingdom have come to the rescue! In this article by Forbes fashion insider Brooke Roberts-Islam, the evolution of mycelium leather is conveyed, highlighting the recent breakthrough by material developers Sophia Wang and Philip Ross, who designed a closed tray system that led to the creation of MycoWorks, a $62 million advanced manufacturing company established in 2013 that supplies Fine Mycelium, their trademarked leather, to brands like Hermès.
So mycelium is becoming popular, but that’s not the only reason to prefer it over animal leather. Its production does not require the use of carcinogenic materials like chromium, the product is biodegradable, and the process overall requires less energy than the production of animal-based leather.
All in all, it sounds like the perfect compromise for those who appreciate the qualities of leather as a material while disliking the qualities of the industry behind it. Still, it remains imperative that consumers always do their research before purchasing a new item like this, not just with mycelium leather, but for all items. It is the constant push of consumer demands that leads companies to provide increasingly more sustainable options.
With that in mind, perhaps next time you go shopping for the jacket of your dreams, you’ll be walking out of the store with a stunning piece of mycelium leather. In fact, maybe you’re already wearing mycelium.
Sofia Perez is a writer, student and flora/fungi enthusiast. When she is not writing, reading, or spending time on her studies, she shows her appreciation for nature through photography.