Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of CNN Style’s The September Issues, a hub for facts, features and opinions about fashion, the climate crisis, and you.
Imagine a handbag that’s strong enough for lugging around laptops and water bottles but one you could simply put in the compost heap at the end of its useful life. What’s more, it has never been near an animal.
Vegan leather, a cruelty-free and environmentally friendly substitute for animal and synthetic leather (essentially made of plastic) has long been the holy grail of sustainable fashion.
Now, a viable alternative may be making the jump from the lab to closets, and its source may surprise many: the forest floor.
Mycelium, the fibrous roots of fungi, is being crafted into durable clothes, bags and watch straps with a lower carbon cost than animal hides or plastic, and it’s a material that won’t clog up landfills. While products made from it aren’t available to buy yet, industry experts say the material has huge potential to disrupt the market for animal and synthetic leathers. And it has a unique look and feel.
“You touch it, and it’s warm. It’s not plastic-like,” said Antoni Gandia, a fungi specialist who works as a scientific consultant with companies developing fungi-based materials.
“It has that fibrousness that you can find in real leather. It has features like porosity, you can see the pores of the organism of the fungi. You can see the little imperfections – you can’t see that with synthetic leather.”
It’s grown on organic material such as sawdust or molasses, forming a mat before being treated to produce a leather-like material. It can be dyed, softened, embossed or imprinted with patterns and produced in sizes up to 30 square feet (2.5 square meters), according to a paper published September in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability co-authored by Gandia.
The process is relatively quick – growing mycelium takes little more than a week, the study said.
Mounting interest in animal-free products means fashion has long been on the hunt for an alternative to leather but, unlike fur – which is now largely shunned – leather’s buttery appeal is perhaps more deeply ingrained. The global leather industry is worth $100 billion a year.
Leather production relies on hides from livestock farming, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a driver of deforestation for grazing. Leather processing also uses hazardous chemicals and generates large amounts of sludge from treating raw hides.
Most “leather” that is branded vegan is polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) or some form of natural material combined with PU. While this synthetic leather has a lower environmental impact, according to the Nature Sustainability study, and is of course animal free, the manufacturing process uses hazardous chemicals and it’s also made from fossil fuels. And like most plastics, the material takes centuries to break down, according to the study.
By contrast, material made from the humble fungi has impeccable environmental credentials. Their growth is effectively carbon neutral since they capture and store carbon that would otherwise be emitted or remain in the atmosphere, according to the Nature Sustainability study. They don’t require any light to grow and, other than sterilizing the raw materials, there is no direct energy input required.
Pure and untreated fungi-derived leather is also biodegradable.
“You can throw it in your garden. Maybe it takes two years but it will decompose,” Gandia said.
‘Beneath the forest floor’
A number of startups are banking on consumer interest in a truly vegan fungi leather. Some 66% of US respondents to a survey by consulting firm McKinsey & Company said they co