Can fungi replace leather for retailers?

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In a world where consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmentfashion is being forced to get creative.

Just as fur became a controversial material in the industry, animal leather has been brought into question by consumers for similar reasons: animal cruelty and environmental concerns.

A consumer survey by the Material Innovation Initiative and North Mountain Consulting Group in March of last year found that 55% of the 519 individuals surveyed preferred leather alternatives. Those who preferred animal leather indicated this was driven by its quality and durability, while those preferring alternatives felt their preference was based on its impact on animals and the environment.

The interest in finding animal leather alternatives spurred the creation of plastic-based leather (made of either polyvinyl or polyurethane, for example), which is an option that might be less harmful to animals, but ultimately creates more plastic. In the same survey, those who preferred animal leather and those who preferred alternatives were more enthusiastic about buying plant fiber alternatives instead of plastic-based ones.

The global leather goods market is still strong though. Data from Straits Research in August found that the market’s value which was at $420 billion in 2021 is expected to reach about $721 billion by 2030.

This retailers puts in a unique position, where brands are looking to find alternatives that can be both better for the environment and animals.

That has welcomed investment into new plant materials that mimic the quality of animal leather, without the need for the same amount of plastic as traditional alternatives. One particular innovation making its rounds is made from mycelium the underground root-like network that creates the fruiting body we know as mushrooms.

retailers have either launched several products made of mycelium leather or have started investing in its development, touting the environmental impact it has compared to plastic-based faux leather.

But, is the material as sustainable as some claim?

A purse, but made of fungi

Two companies that have entered the market to create scalable mycelium-based leather over the past few years are Forager by Ecovative and MycoWorks.

While mycelium is naturally found beneath the soil, both these companies are able to grow it indoors within a controlled environment.

Forager has what it describes as controlled vertical farms that grow mycelium from “a blend of agricultural byproducts called substrate,” according to its website. The company’s process guides the mycelium to grow above the substrate, into sheets that can be used across a variety of applications. Forager says it can grow the sheets in nine days.

The edge of a brown mycelium hide from Forager.

Forager’s mycelium hides can be customized with different finishes and colors.

Courtesy of Forager / Ecovative

Rather than a sheet of mycelium, MycoWorks’ Fine Mycelium product “engineers mycelium cells as they grow to create three-dimensional structures that are densely entwined and inherently strong,” according to its website.

Both Forager and MycoWorks provide clients with the ability to customize the finish and color of the mycelium leather.

Durability is a major factor for consumers who still prefer animal leather. A respondent from the Material Innovation Initiative study said, “I prefer the durability, reliability, and feel of real leather. Too many times have I had fake leather or leather alternatives deteriorate on me,” while another noted they felt the “wearing/aging of leather has not been reproducible at present.”

MycoWorks claims that its Fine Mycelium product “is the first biomaterial that matches the strength, hand feel and durability of cowwhide,” according to its website.

While Mark Taylor, research fellow at the School of Design for the University of Leeds, hasn’t conducted durability tests himself with mycelium leather, he told Retail Dive, “I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t have good durability as long as they’ve been grown thick enough.”

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