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Deep science meets high design: the future of sustainable fashion relies on mushrooms

By Alma Fabiani

May 20, 2021

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Having previously covered Coeio’s biodegradable mushroom ‘infinity burial suit’, and being as involved as possible in the sustainability aspect of the fashion industry, I already knew that lab-grown materials represent a promising alternative to leather and all its environmental hazards, not to mention its cruel practices. And you probably had an inkling too. In fact, in May 2020, Screen Shot predicted that the UK and the US would soon wake up to a potential solution that the rest of the world has been aware of for years: you guessed it, shrooms. That being said, I never thought 2021 would be the year that big names like adidas, Stella McCartney and lululemon would be selling clothes made from these innovative materials. Introducing Mylo, the material that is everything you love about leather without everything you don’t. So, how is it made exactly, and how did it prove to fashion giants that it is the future of sustainability?

What is Mylo exactly?

When I say Mylo’s material is made out of mushrooms, it’s actually slightly more complicated than that. In fact, it is made from mycelium—a sprawling, infinitely renewable, interlaced web that threads through soil, plant bodies, and along river beds to break down organic matter and provide nutrients to plants and trees. It’s literally the world wide web, and mushrooms are its fruits. “The complex latticework of underground fibers so strong they hold the planet together,” reads Mylo’s website. The material is soft, supple, and less harmful to the environment. Duh.

Made possible by the world-class scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads, Mylo is just one of their unconventional technologies—the other ones being Microsilk and B-silk protein. The idea-driven company developed Mylo by engineering mycelium into a material that is near-identical to real leather. It is certified bio-based, meaning it’s made from predominantly renewable ingredients that can be found in nature. To deliver millions of square feet of Mylo, Bolt Threads has built a supply chain that maintains its product’s high quality while continuously minimising its environmental impact.

 

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The company’s European tanning partner has five generations of experience working with leather and meets top certifications in sustainability, including a gold rating from the Leather Working Group. Meanwhile, its mycelium partner is the world’s expert in growing mushrooms; it operates a state-of-the-art facility in the Netherlands that utilises vertical farming to minimise its ecological footprint. And as mentioned above, Mylo will become available to the world through its consortium partners.

What is the Mylo consortium?

First thing first, a consortium is defined as “an association of two or more entities coming together to join forces and work together in achieving a common goal.” In this case, Bolt Threads knew Mylo could change the world, but it also realised that it couldn’t do so alone. “In a resource-constrained world, the time has come to develop smarter solutions through advanced science and a shared commitment to a better future,” explains the company.

Enters the Mylo consortium: adidas, Kering—the multinational corporation specialised in luxury goods that owns brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta among many other—lululemon, and Stella McCartney. Selected based on mission alignment, high standards of quality, and the ability to scale worldwide, these partners banded together to invest in meaningful material innovation with Mylo. Sounds almost utopian, right? And it might just do the trick.

Let’s be realistic here; leather has served us for centuries, but people evolve, and so should our materials. In our resource-constrained world with a growing population, we are overdue for a renewable, sustainable alternative to leather—or to anything, really. But leather is a good place to start.

Shall we have a closer look at some of the brands that are part of the consortium and exactly how they’ll be using Mylo?

Stan Smith Mylo by adidas

Debuted by adidas in April 2021, the Stan Smith Mylo is the first-ever shoe made with the lab-grown material. A limited-edition drop of the shoes will be available “in the near future.” By reimagining the brand’s iconic shoe silhouette with Mylo, adidas pays homage to a classic with a new pledge of responsibility to find material solutions inspired by nature.

This reimagined classic enables adidas to quickly scale Mylo through a globally beloved silhouette. The outer upper, perforated three stripes, heel tab overlay, and premium branding are all made with the material, and the midsole of the shoe is made with natural rubber.

 

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As a company, adidas has been a longstanding pioneer in using eco-innovative materials to minimise its environmental impact. The brand has proven its commitment to sustainability through innovative partnerships and material exploration. “As a consortium member, adidas has provided critical feedback in the development process to help give Mylo the strength and performance it demonstrates today,” adds Mylo’s website.

Stella McCartney

In April 2018, Bolt Threads collaborated with Stella McCartney to create a prototype of her iconic Falabella bag, made with Mylo. The bag premiered at the Fashioned from Nature exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

In March 2021, Stella McCartney was the first to debut Mylo items from the consortium with a bustier top as well as trousers. According to Bolt Threads, the current items are only a peek into McCartney’s design process with Mylo and an exploration of what the future will look like with sustainable materials at the forefront. And who better to ‘conquer the world’ with than McCartney, who’s known as “fashion’s conscience” for redefining luxury by never using animal leather, skin, fur, or feathers in her collections?

“I believe the Stella community should never have to compromise luxury and design for sustainability, and Mylo makes that a reality,” said the designer about her new sustainable collaboration. Although her Mylo garments only debuted in March, both the bustier top and trousers were already worn by actress and environmentalist Paris Jackson in a Vogue exclusive feature. The clothes were handcrafted from panels of Mylo laid on recycled nylon scuba at the Stella McCartney atelier in London.

 

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Interest from big brands equals the fabric of the future?

While lululemon and Kering are yet to reveal how they’ll be using Mylo through their brands’ products, other smaller companies have already jumped on the bandwagon. Chester Wallace has collaborated with the company through a Kickstarter campaign that was funded in only seven days. As a result, the Driver bag became the prototype for the first commercially available bag made with Mylo.

All in all, Mylo consumes significantly less land and emits fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock. The mycelium used to make Mylo is grown from mulch, air, and water in just a few short weeks—versus the land and other significant resources it takes to raise cattle over the course of years.

Using Green Chemistry principles, Mylo is created through a highly efficient process that is rigorously designed to reduce environmental impact from start to finish. The fashion industry remains one of the most polluting sectors in the world. By growing its material from mycelium, Bolt Threads is hoping to offset some of this environmental impact. “The truth is, this industry remains an environmental ticking time bomb and is full of outdated technologies,” chief executive and founder Dan Widmaier told The New York Times in 2020, when the company announced its consortium.

“We had to convince these industry competitors that this was about tackling a bigger challenge together than any of them could solve alone,” he further explained, declining to specify the exact amounts invested by the four brands other than that each had committed “seven-figure sums” to the partnership. “This kind of innovation is really expensive,” Widmaier added.

Making mushroom leather happen for once and for all

It might surprise some of you, but inventors have actually filed patents for fungal mats as a material for a range of other products since the 1950s, and Amadou, a spongy, Romanian leather-like material sourced from the fruiting of tree fungi, has been around for thousands of years.

But it is only in the last decade that Bolt Threads, alongside other bio-materials companies like MycoWorks, has really begun targeting the fashion industry, one of the most polluting sectors in the world. The technology behind mushroom leather, although far more advanced today, had been there for quite some time. It only needed to be convincing enough to big fashion companies in order to become available for consumers. And we’ve finally reached that point.

 

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In an email, Francois Henri-Pinault, Kering’s chief executive, wrote that luxury companies (which have far larger profit margins than affordably-priced retailers) had a responsibility to lead the way in the fashion and textile industry, both creatively but also by investing in the innovation that would drastically reduce emissions in its supply chain. “Mylo is one of the very promising solutions that we have identified,” he said.

Seeing such names put aside the competitive aspect of the fashion industry in order to change their impact on the planet might be the first step towards real sustainability. Looks like there’s about to be humongous fungus among us!

Opinion

Now, more than ever, we must acknowledge the importance of medicinal mushrooms

By Emma Latham Phillips

May 7, 2020

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Science

May 7, 2020

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You heard it here first (or maybe third): mushrooms are having a moment. Plant-based diets are in vogue, and not only are mushrooms replacing the Big Mac, but they’re also used as leather-like alternatives and digesting toxic waste, and are being crushed into medicinal powders. So are countries like the UK and the US finally waking up to a potential that the rest of the world has known about for years?

Unlike other countries in Europe, the UK has mycophobia—an irrational fear of mushrooms. Yes, pick the wrong one and you can die, or get incredibly high. We all know what happened to Alice when she took a bite from the toadstool—she grew inhumanely tall. Fungi have been vilified and fabled into stories as harmful, and have been associated with witchcraft and altered states. As a former colony of the UK, the US has inherited these prejudices. Dr Cornelia Cho, paediatrician and president of the Georgia Mushroom Club explains, “the genocide of the Native American population contributed tremendously towards losing existing traditional lore.”

Medicinal mushrooms, not Psilocybin mushrooms (magic ones)

In other cultures, however, fungi are celebrated. Traditional Chinese medicine has adopted mushrooms for years. Cho remembers receiving dried shiitake by post from her Korean grandmother. Chinese American photographer Phyllis Ma recalls her mum making medicinal broths with a parasitic mushroom that grows on caterpillars. Most white Americans don’t understand how tasty this food can be, having been brought up on canned button mushrooms that taste as slimy as they sound. “Urg. I don’t like to eat those either,” Cho muses. “But frustratingly, the people that try them have made a huge generalisation based on one of the sorriest culinary specimens out there.”

Now, more than ever, we must acknowledge the importance of medicinal mushrooms

If you’re interested in mushrooms, it probably didn’t take long for you to realise their health benefits. “I found out as soon as I cared,” William Padilla-Brown tells me. A celebrity in the fungi community, William dropped out of high school to follow his passion for farming. After dabbling in the magical variety, he soon realised how important these species were to natural systems and strived to grow his own.

Finding no educational instructors in the area, Padilla-Brown turned to Youtube. “I didn’t have any money or funding, to begin with”, he told Screen Shot. “My set-up was very low tech. I used to hang the mushroom blocks off the ceiling with strings.” Today, Padilla-Brown specialises in cultivating and selling Cordyceps militaris, a parasitic medicinal mushroom that looks like a cheese puff. Not only is it anti-viral, but it boosts energy and can even make you better in bed.

“During this COVID-19 crisis, I wouldn’t want to be without medicinal mushrooms,” Cho tells me. “Most support our immune system.” As a paediatrician, she recommends that her patients eat more mushrooms, period. They act as prebiotics, the soil needed to make probiotics grow, and they can treat a variety of symptoms. “A doctor I know in Indiana read about oyster mushrooms being helpful for eczema. He put them on his sons scrambled eggs every morning and his atopic dermatitis cleared up in weeks. I now offer it as an option for parents.”

Both experts advocate the same thing, food is medicine—an idea still not granted the time of day across the west. Nutrition barely enters into a trainee doctor’s curriculum. Western medicine may have made some giant leaps, but it is reactionary rather than preventative. “By jumping in to solve problems, Western medicine has not actually succeeded in helping people stay out of trouble,” Cho explains.

She quotes the American novelist Wendell Berry, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are healed by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” We’ve become disconnected from what we eat and therefore all that grows. It is this severing from the natural world that Padilla-Brown believes makes us so reliant on western medicine and over-prescribed drugs. Humans are living longer, but they’re also getting sicker and this cycle is feeding greedy pharmaceutical giants.

The US and the UK are approaching this newfound interest in holistic medicine in a typically problematic and western way. What should really be eaten and grown is being reduced to powders to be sold on shelves. When a customer sees these capsules, they can’t truly understand where it comes from. “The demand we have seen from Western countries has trifled our understanding of indigenous uses for these mushrooms,” Padilla-Brown explains. “It has pushed the prices up to the point where the people that use them indigenously don’t have access to them. It’s now more viable for them to sell them.” Cho compares it to the societies whose ancient foods, like quinoa, have become trendy ‘superfoods’, “these then get outpriced for original consumers.”

Now, more than ever, we must acknowledge the importance of medicinal mushrooms

The solution is to grow your own or at least turn to local and ethical producers. Luckily, if you know what to do, “medicinal mushrooms are relatively cultivatable and expansible,” Cho comments. When Padilla-Brown first started cultivating cordyceps there was no information in English, his solution was to write a handbook.

For him, it is important that information is democratised, so everyone has an equal footing. His focus is on teaching in inner-city, lower socio-economic areas, where there’s less access to resources and education. “It’s beneficial that I am not a stereotypical scientist. I look like a regular street kid,” he enthuses. “I go in and communicate with them on their level and relate to them because I can. I’ll go in and perform music as well as teach people about ecology.”

The photographer Phyllis Ma advocates that you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate fungi. Her colourful still lifes bring mushrooms into popular culture channels, so we can witness each specimen’s mischievous personality. “They’re a lot like people,” she muses. “You come to realise each is distinct when you get closely acquainted.” She’s foraged for mushrooms from Brooklyn to Berlin, as well as sourcing supplies from New York City’s only mushroom farm, Smallhold. Padilla-Brown has also provided her with cordyceps—he explains, “exposing people to new realities is one of the most important things we can do.”

We’re so used to seeing lifeless button mushrooms littering the shelves, that it’s no wonder the UK greets this food with disgust. Phyllis Ma’s photographs, alongside Padilla-Brown and Cho’s work, teach us that there’s so much more to fungi and it’s time we acknowledged it.

Now, more than ever, we must acknowledge the importance of medicinal mushrooms


By Emma Latham Phillips

May 7, 2020

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