The news that Mylo, a mushroom based leather alternative by US innovation company Bolt Threads, will be taking a break, has left us wondering about the future of new non-animal based leathers whilst taking a look at the relationship between investment and demand.
Remember last years’ mushroom mania? The world of new materials is both exciting and strange. When I first heard about mycelium becoming an alternative to leather and other fruits and vegetables, my initial reaction was “how does that work?”. Over the past year I’ve been mesmerised by the steadiness, beauty and rawness of mycelium products and how versatile they are, not only as a leather alternative, but as materials for construction and interiors. In my house I’ve taken pride in my very own mycelium plant bowl.
Last week Business of Fashion and Vogue Business announced that Bolt Threads have decided to pause the roll out of their mycelium leather alternative Mylo, due to unsuccessful fundraising rounds. It adds up, money is tight – even for investors who have become increasingly cautious with their portfolios and the stop start nature of the market. The original thought that burst through after this news was “but they received so much industry support!” and “What about the orders from the big brands – why are they not flooding in despite the partnerships?” as the venture was backed by Stella McCartney, Kering and Adidas.
The truth is R&D and consumer demand can be two different things. Massive amounts of capital have been flooded into solutions for climate change, particularly if they involve tech or a science laboratory. At the same time a more grassroots approach is stemming, pushing hashtag reuse, reduce, recycle across generations – accelerated by the cost-of-living crisis. Whilst huge cash injections are being placed in biomaterial solutions; communities are forming to thrift, swap and build or use existing technologies from the ground up to solve the same problem. We are in support of the non exploitive use of different materials from the earth for biodiversity – in the sense of having multiple materials to spread out demand so that we don’t put ourselves in that trap where we exhaust a single material and process that damage the Earth, eco-systems and exploit people through poor working conditions and terrible wages. There is still the nagging question of “who will buy a mushroom bag?” – is chasing the demand the wrong way to go if after all we want to stop consumption. The mission in this case is to replace animal leathers with what the industry brands as “planet friendly” alternatives.
WHY ARE WE MAKING IT AGAIN?
Don’t we already have leather alternatives?
I want to start with understanding why there is a need to produce leather alternatives. As defined in our Vegan Leather Guide, leather is a material that is made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process. It is a supple and incredibly durable material that humans have loved for thousands of years. Leather can be made from cow, alligator, snake skins and large brands charge a premium – often breeding animals to a particular standard in order to extract the best leather. A very cruel and polluting process, with the United Nations confirming that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions – not far behind transport which accounts for 24%.
One can argue that animal leather has earned its reputation – leather has forever served a practical need and has been with us throughout primitive years, a very nostalgic material that also gives a sense of one’s status; whether that is car interiors, bag, shoes or a luxe sofa – an element of society that isn’t going away anytime soon, is the need to keep up with the Jones – becoming a virtual game with the rise of social media. We are accustomed to animal leather, whilst mushroom leather was an experiment by product designers, Philip Ross and Jonas Edvard in 2012; and only in 2021 brands such as Hermès and Stella McCartney released mushroom leather bags. On Hermès shelves, the fungi alternative competes with a legacy of animal skinned bags. Stella McCartney as a brand has always sourced vegan (non-animal) alternatives, their bags are made from polyurethane and polyester, a material rightfully receiving back-lash due to the pollution and environmental damage caused by petroleum based items – including harm to animals. Even faux leather has had a longer run; the first of its kind was Presstoff Leather, a material made from tree pulp, developed in Germany during a time where animal leather was rationed due to the war; then it was created in 1920’s at the U.S Rubber plant. A clever marketing campaign in the 1960’s came along promoting a faux alternative called naugahyde, which was comically purported to come from the “Nauga” fictional animal. In the ad, the Nauga would shed it’s skin to produce the hide. Making it an animal friendly resource. Ever since pleathers, faux leathers, plastic leathers have become a huge part of fashion, interiors and accessories.
DO I WANT TO WEAR MUSHROOMS?
We’ve replaced the material. What about the culture?
Yes mushrooms have a culture of their own which has become as cultish as the avocado trend. Linked to psychedelics or balancing out pizza toppings, the barrier to having this material as an item of clothing requires a shift – or like pleather, a damn good marketing campaign. The culture of leather transcends race, class; with leather being a durable item that one feels responsible for, particularly if it comes with a brand stamp or hefty price tag. In my Congolese household, the word cuir, the French word for leather, was the first choice for sofa’s, belts, and I remember my beloved black pantalon en cuir when I was a pre-teen. Mushroom leathers are still associated with a small crowd of hippy-like eco-nerds or a new invention that feels miles away from our everyday existence. In business terms, if we must follow the capitalist ways, we wait for economies of scale and demand. However surely the production of planet friendly alternatives should birth a new way to do business – maybe a slower one that links with demand.
The food industry has become a benchmark when it comes to setting standards for regulation. Earlier this year supermarkets admitted to pulling vegan items off the shelf, an article in the Guardian shared items such as Oatly’s vegan ice cream and Beyond Meat products not meeting the sales. While it is claimed the global vegan market may be worth as much as £50bn by 2030, sales of many products in the UK have flatlined or fallen. Hamish Renton, managing director of HRA Global, a food and drink consultancy admitting the cause may be linked to the availability of too many products on the shelf for the volume of sales. Only about 2% of the UK population claim to be vegan, but we must also remember that veganism is a lifestyle that had been practised for centuries, better known as plant-based diets with recipes stemming from existing foods including vegetables, lentils, fruits, herbs and nuts.
What this is showing us is that there is a mismatch between the people that are producing new products and the reality of those of us wanting it. Yes, in the fashion space there is finally a global cry for more responsible products and transparent supply chains. We are also living in a time where we want familiarity and an age of nostalgia. If a fourteen year old today can find treasure in their grandma’s wardrobe; or belt the lyrics of Apple Bottom Jeans (T-Pain Low), just as I did at the same age – it shows that the culture of reusing, revamping and reliving is here. Not to say that there isn’t space for newness – but shopping for new looks represents itself as borrowing in an app like ByRotation; finding the cheaper alternative on Vinted or walking into a thrift store a reliving ones favourite decade. The narrative with leather is that it can be resold, it lasts. Natural materials such as linen, wool and hemp which are plant based are making a come-back, the difference is that they have a long memory of being worn; of being part of a culture and if one looks deep enough it could be found in a charity shop. In the UK, growers and manufacturers are building a case to bring back these materials – if only the same investment could go into these industries that once worked very well and have potential to provide jobs and have a proven demand and legacy – as animal based leather does. Linen blends and wool blends have not left luxury, high-street and can be found on Vinted.
SO WHAT, NO MORE MUSHROOMS?
We welcome new materials, but the truth is, it takes years to build demand, true connection and a clever global campaign that clicks with people and meets familiarity before a material becomes part of our everyday life. Perhaps there isn’t much of an urgency for certain alternative leathers – but they are still at their infancy and whilst technology and science can accelerate its production, it will take years before we adopt them into our material bank. The good news is that Bolt Threads has a range of new materials – B-Silk is a protein that is bio based and used in skincare; and micro silk which produces silk fibres from spiders has been spun into clothing items (who would have known we should have kept all of those webs). We know that R&D efforts need to be met with a demand, Bolt Threads have invested in pushing the leather alternative – that technology is here to stay. As we transition into a new world where slowing down production and responsible sourcing will be backed by legal requirements, there is space for new leather, it just takes time.