Episode 16: Why mushrooms could be the future of fashion




Sustainability, Compostable, Mycelium, Mushrooms, Fungi, Leather, Fashion, Sourcing, Packaging, Stella McCartney, Paul Stamets



Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.


Hello, and welcome to episode 16 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Today's episode is about a material or consciously created material, whose developments have been bubbling away on the fringe for a while, a fascinating example of how we need to sometimes go backwards to go forwards.


But before I get to that, I've loved reading all of the wonderful reviews on Apple podcasts, but I would love it if you had five seconds to leave a star rating if you haven't already, or even a bit longer to leave a review. It goes a long way to getting the podcast out there and if you're into the latest developments within fashion and sustainability, you can sign up to the monthly newsletter on the website belindahumphrey.com.


So onto today's topic, why mushrooms or fungi could be the future of fashion. There have been a few advanced innovations in fashion and research around mushrooms recently but it wasn't until Stella McCartney's recent spring summer 2022 show where she debuted the Frayme bag made of Mylo, (which is a vegan mushroom leather created by Bolt Threads) that I started to think that this material could be close to a tipping point to actually replace leather. The reason for this is the bag will be available to purchase, a production run of 100 little black crescent shaped bags. Whereas the prototype items in the previous seasons runway were not available to purchase. But to illustrate just how long it's taken to develop and innovate to this point, a prototype of this was initially created in 2018. So that's four years in the making.


From what I've found Bolt Threads seems to be the leader in this area within fashion and they've partnered with a few different brands to invest in the innovation of Mylo including Adidas, Kering and Lululemon. Adidas debuted a Stan Smith concept shoe reinvented with Mylo leather in April 2020 and Lululemon revealed a yoga mat made from 100% undyed Milo in July 2021.


But let's backtrack a bit to get into the nuts and bolts of how this material is made. Essentially, Mylo is the trademark name for a leather like material that is made from mycelium. Much like Lycra is a brand name for elastane. But there are generic options such as elastane, whereas I don't think the technology is far enough along to have generic mycelium leather.


Researchers developed Mylo by reproducing mycelium in a lab using mulch, water, air and 100% renewable energy. The process takes days rather than the years it takes to produce animal leather. A Stella McCartney press release noted that it takes 17,000 litres of water to produce a kilogramme of leather. Additionally, 70 to 80% of Amazon's deforested areas is currently used for cattle pastures.


On Bolt Threads website, they broke down the process to create the leather into four steps, beginning with the mycelium cells, then growing those cells on beds of renewable organic matter, which then grew billions of cells to form an interconnected 3d network and then finally, they processed the finished network and tan and dye it to make Mylo.


So I'm sure you'll agree that's a pretty amazing way that a popular material is being completely reimagined. But what else can we learn and adopt from the way mycelium and fungi work? Going back to that Stella McCartney show, the audience heard the voice of American mycologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets, who's considered an intellectual and industry leader in everything associated with fungi. Which led me back down a rabbit hole researching fungi.


Firstly, I highly recommend watching Fantastic Fungi which is still showing on Netflix. It essentially summarises the life work of Paul and explains how this works in nature and some other amazing experiments and I'll put the link for that in the show notes on the website.


From what I understand fungi is an umbrella name for moulds, yeast, mildew, and mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruits of certain fungi plant and Mycelium is the often underground network of threads. Not all types of mycelium produce mushrooms, and depending on the mycelium different types of mushrooms will be produced. The documentary explains that for billions of years, mycelium has grown beneath our feet and served as an ecological connective tissue. A sprawling infinitely renewable interlaced web, it threads through soil, plant bodies and along riverbeds to break down organic matter and provide nutrients to plants and trees. It brings sustenance to all living species and is the literal worldwide web. He also proposes that this web was the inspiration for the internet.


Another fascinating watch is Paul's TED talk from around 2008 which I'll also link to in the show notes. It starts at the beginning explaining that fungi first came to land 1.3 billion years ago and plants followed several 100 million years later. Fast forward to 65 million years ago when the asteroid hit, and fungi inherited the Earth, organisms that paired with fungi were awarded as fungi do not need light. Fast forward again to today, he goes on to say that we are more closely related to fungi than any other kingdom.


Paul is absolutely obsessed with fungi. His favourite place to go is an old growth forest in America and he's deeply passionate about the potential of mycelium and fungi. Over the years, he has conducted many experiments and made many discoveries which have resulted in so many patents across various industries and products. Discoveries such as the ability of fungi and mycelium to sequester carbon, and the ability to almost be 1000 times more effective in treating the flu then pharmaceuticals. A massive disrupter to that market, which he explained, unsurprisingly, he has a Graham Bell patent for it, meaning it covers hundreds of iterations of that innovation.


But to keep today's episode on the impact mycelium could have on fashion, there is one experiment in particular that I want to highlight today. It's an experiment where there were four piles of waste saturated with diesel and other petroleum waste. One was a control pile, one pile was treated with enzymes, one with bacteria, and the fourth was treated with mushroom mycelium. Around six weeks after being under a dark tarp, the mycelium pile had absorbed the oil, whereas all of the other three piles were dead, dark and stinky. The mycelium pile was covered in hundreds of oyster mushrooms they'd essentially converted the oil into carbohydrates sugars. They went onto sporulate, which brought in insects and promoted life, whereas the other piles remained dead, dark and stinky.


From this experiment, Paul created a floating product that contained mycelium to put downstream from the factory. Replicating what happened in his experiment, it could capture or clean up any chemicals oil or e-coli, converting them into carbohydrate sugars and leading to habitat restoration. It immediately made me think of the contaminate rivers from the fashion industry's dyestuffs and waste and being able to clean that up.


One final innovation I came across that could be a game changer across many industries is using mushrooms for packaging, which results in a negative carbon footprint. This is being used at the moment by Belrebel, which is a beauty brand and according to their website, the packaging is grown in the Netherlands and made from agricultural waste and mycelium, making it fully compostable. They go on to explain that because its structure is protective, they're able to get rid of tonnes of plastic bubble wrap.


So I hope today's episode has been an inspiring one. Many of the things discussed are really just at the beginning stages of development and their ability to be used at scale, but I think it provides some hope to know that some of these amazing technologies are just around the corner. In the words of Paul Stamets at the Stella McCartney show, in fashion, mushrooms are the future.


I'd love to know if something struck a chord with you in today's episode, you can DM me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_ or send me an email at info@belindahumphrey.com. Again, a reminder to sign up for my monthly newsletter by heading to belindahumphrey.com  and when you do you'll also get a free guide showing you 10 Sustainable Switches you can implement in your product development process. And finally, as always, you'll find the show notes and any links on the website too, in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.


Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch head over to belindahumphrey.com or you can find me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 


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