In recent years, sustainability has become a growing concern in the fashion industry, as more consumers are becoming aware of the ecological impact of its standard production methods. This shift has pushed several companies in the direction of adopting more sustainable practices and materials. Among these innovative alternatives is mycelium, a network of tiny fibers created by fungal organisms. With its low environmental impact and biodegradability, mycelium may be a promising solution to the fashion industry’s environmental challenges.
The fashion and textile industry is one of the top six polluting industries in the world and accounts for an estimated 10% of the global carbon footprint. Although the industry is highly regarded due to its creativity and glamour, it has a much less attractive dark side that must be examined. The allure of trendy and affordable clothing has led to a culture of clothing overconsumption and disposability all over the world, leading to serious implications for environmental health.
One of the primary issues that the fashion industry contributes to is water pollution. According to a report by the United Nations, the industry uses a staggering 93 billion cubic meters of water for its operations annually. This immense consumption of water not only depletes water resources but also leads to significant water pollution. The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters of clean water. It contributes to around 20% of global industrial water pollution, as reported by figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Many dyes and finishing agents used in clothing are released into water bodies as textile factories, particularly in areas with little to no regulations, dispose of untreated wastewater into nearby rivers, lakes, and oceans. Water can also be contaminated through runoff from agricultural fields and landfills. These contaminants are non-biodegradable and can contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
But clothing dye isn’t the only culprit to the water pollution problem. Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic account for around 60% of all clothing materials. Despite how convenient these fabrics are for their durability and affordability, they shed tiny microfibers that end back up in natural water sources, further contributing to the growing microplastic problem. In fact, these fibers account for 35% of all primary microplastics released into the environment, making the fashion industry a significant contributor to this crisis.
The production of excess waste is another pressing concern, as fast fashion has led to a rise in clothing turnover. More clothing brands are producing inexpensive clothing at a rapid pace in order to keep up with the latest fashion trends. As a result, clothing production has doubled since the 2000s and is projected to triple by 2050. This means that significantly more waste is being generated. In the United States alone, 85% of textiles are tossed away every year, which amounts to up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste.
Although an increase in consumer demand greatly supports this growing trend of consumption, many consumers are becoming aware of the ecological impact of their clothing and are reducing clothing use while seeking out more eco-friendly alternatives, like mycelium fabrics.
Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, made up of tiny filaments called hyphae. It is known to decompose and recycle organic matter back into nature, but it has also been explored as a sustainable material source for various applications, ranging from building materials to food sources. Because of the versatile properties of mycelium, it is also being used to create various forms of clothing materials.
In a process called biofabrification, mycelium is grown in a controlled environment using agricultural waste, like straw, as a substrate to grow on. Different methods require different types of fungal mycelium and growth conditions, specially selected by the manufacturers based on the desired properties of the final product. For instance, some fungal strains are chosen for their durability, while others may be used for their texture flexibility.
Manufacturers can manipulate growth conditions like humidity and temperature to create materials with certain characteristics. As a result, the texture of mycelium-based materials can vary widely, from soft, fabric-like textures to thicker, more sturdy textures similar to leather. Once the mycelium has grown to the required density, it is harvested and undergoes various processing steps.
These include drying and pressing, along with additional treatments to enhance the material’s strength, flexibility, or water resistance. Then, the material may be dyed or further texturized to improve its feel and appearance. The final product – a versatile and sustainable material suitable for a wide range of applications, including clothing, footwear, and upholstery fabrics.
Mycelium is an excellent sustainable fabric option and aligns with the principles of a circular economy, which reduces consumption and renews “waste” products as a resource for new materials. Since mycelium comes from a natural source, it is biodegradable and non-toxic, making it a substantially more environmentally conscious option compared to traditional textiles.
Unlike many synthetic fabrics that can take hundreds of years to decompose, mycelium fabrics break down naturally and do not contain any harmful residues. Mycelium is also carbon-negative, which means that it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces since its production requires low energy. It locks away additional carbon present in the waste materials it grows on, helping with waste reduction and creating value from by-products that would otherwise be thrown away.
Mycelium production tends not to use high amounts of water and does not require continuous watering, unlike other water-intensive crops or livestock used for textile production. Some mycelium products are even designed as closed-loop systems that reuse and recycle the water needed for its growth, which further reduces its overall water intake. Compared to traditional clothing materials, mycelium has a significantly lower carbon footprint and can even offset greenhouse gasses in the process of production.
What’s more – mycelium isn’t just an eco-friendly alternative; it actually has beneficial properties that make it such a suitable fabric. Mycelium materials have been found to be waterproof, fire-resistant, and have insulating properties, adding to their practicality. Mycelium fabric is also naturally breathable and hypoallergenic, making it suitable for those with sensitive skin.
And even though mycelium textiles are biodegradable, they can still last for years with proper production and care. Mycelium fabrics can withstand consistent wear and washing, especially when properly cared for. “Leather” products made from mycelium tend to last longer and do not crack or peel over time, unlike most synthetic leathers.
However, many mycelium fabrics do not last as long as other traditional non-synthetic textiles like cotton or wool. Though its longevity is not exactly where it needs to be yet, ongoing research and development are steadily improving the strength and versatility of mycelium fabrics. As the technology and production methods evolve, the expected lifespan of mycelium-based materials is likely to increase, making them even more competitive with traditional materials.
Mycelium fabrics come in various forms, each with its own individualized properties and uses. Their unique properties and applications mean that they can be used for a wide range of clothing purposes, from everyday wear to high-end fashion. This versatility gives clothing designers a new way to utilize sustainable fashion practices.
Certain mycelium-based materials can resemble animal leather and suede with their strong and durable qualities. Mylo™ Unleather is one of the leading manufacturers of mycelium leather, creating materials with the classic look and feel of traditional leather without the environmental impact associated with livestock farming.
Partnered with material solutions company, Bolt Threads, Mylo uses a verticle farming facility completely powered by renewable energy. In less than two weeks, the Mylo leather alternative is produced through a carefully engineered process. Mycoworks, a biotech company based in California, is another major manufacturer of mycelium leather, founded in 2013.
By engineering mycelium cells, the company has patented a new class of material called Fine Mycelium™which possesses a living quality similar to cowhide. Using Fine Mycelium™ technology, Mycoworks has also developed their flagship product, Reishi™, which has comparable durability and hand-feel of the finest animal leathers without the use of animal products. Reishi™ is available in four different finishes with differing textures to be used in luxury designs.
Mycelium textiles can replace more harmful synthetic materials while providing a fashionable look and comfortable feel. These fabrics also use less water than cotton, furthering their minimal consumption. NEFFA is one of the primary mycelium fabric brands, cofounded by Dutch textile designers Aniela Hoitink and Nicoline van Enter.
The company aims to reduce the systemic challenges faced by the fashion industry by automating garment production, which usually heavily relies on manual sewing operations. NEFFA’s novel fabric, MycoTEX, is the only 3D manufacturing method for mycelium textiles that creates seamless garments without the need for cutting and sewing.
The process uses molds made from body scans to form the biomass into personalized clothing items, reducing the amount of waste produced by cutting out measured fabrics and minimizing the number of separate parts required for production.
The company estimates that 910,000 square meters of annual waste could be saved if MycoTEX continues to scale its production solution in 2030. Without chemicals or farmland, the company can create products within seven days, which is a significant advancement in sustainable and efficient clothing manufacturing.
Every year, 23 billion pairs of shoes are made, and 22 billion end up thrown into a landfill. Since shoes are made from unsustainable materials like glues, plastics, and leather, they do not break down easily, and it takes 30 to 40 years on average for one pair to decompose.
To tackle this issue, a group of researchers from the University of Delaware are working on creating sustainable footwear by developing biodegradable shoe soles made out of mycelium. Led by Jill Silverman, a graduate research assistant from UD’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, uses mycelium from local mushroom farms combined with selected substrate materials for the mycelium to form on, such as chicken feathers and cellulose textiles.
The team has tried out eight different species of edible mushrooms and found that King Oysters work the best for shoe soles due to their dense mycelium structure, which makes them more durable. The team has made their first prototype, a sole for a pair of sandals, but the final product will be something more comfortable that can be walked on. The project has received a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to further its research into mycelium-based fashion biocomposites.
Recently, several major fashion brands have begun to embrace mycelium as a sustainable material for their products. In conjunction with Mylo™, British luxury brand Stella McCartney has launched the world’s first luxury bag made from a mycelium-based leather alternative.
The Frayme Mylo is produced from a blend of 85% mycelium and 15% lyocell, a semi-synthetic fiber made from wood cellulose. It is finished with a water-based polyurethane for durability. The vegan handbag is one major step for the company in its efforts to move away from fossil-based synthetics in its products.
Designer brand Hermès has also created a vegan luxury bag variation in collaboration with Mycoworks, which they released in 2021 after three years of development. The brand uses a new mycelium material called Sylvania, a strong cellular material processed to create a luxury leather effect. The mycelium leather is tanned in France to refine the material further before it is shaped into its final form.
Adidas has paired up with Bolt Threads to create the Stan Smith Mylo, the first shoe produced using the Mylo material. The unique iteration of the iconic Stan Smith trainers was made commercially available in 2022 in an effort to end plastic waste. Adidas is also pushing to use more sustainable base materials, like the natural rubber insole that completes the shoe’s design.
Each brand has committed “seven-figure sums” to fund its innovation into sustainable fashion. As the leather industry continues to decline, mycelium materials, notably those that resemble leather, might be a primary replacement that requires no animal products and fewer resources.
So far, luxury brands seem to be the primary producers of mycelium-based fashion. Since this technology is still relatively new, production costs are currently more expensive. Since high-end brands can have more inflated price points, they’re able to absorb these costs more easily. However, as the technology matures and production scales up, the cost to produce mycelium materials is likely to decrease, making it more accessible to a broader range of consumers.
Mycelium textile production is still on the laboratory scale, but major mycelium companies have begun developing large-scale industrial infrastructure for their production. This scaling up is crucial for reducing production costs and increasing accessibility.
Furthermore, future technological advancements will help create materials that last longer and are more effective for everyday wear. One promising avenue is a species called the Splitgill Mushroom (Schizophyllum commune), which has successfully demonstrated an increased density and strength, shifting its classification from the category of a natural material into a thermoplastic-like material. These qualities may make the fungus a suitable replacement for synthetic fibers in the future (1).
Such instances demonstrate the potential for mycelium products to evolve beyond their current applications and become more suitable for a wider array of applications and everyday consumer needs. As the production process grows, mycelium-based products will likely become more prevalent in mainstream fashion. This shift will not only advance sustainable practices in the fashion industry but also encourage more innovations in material science. The growth of mycelium textiles holds the potential to transform how we approach fashion and consumer goods in more eco-conscious ways.