Plant based leather will shape the future of fashion

Over the last few years, there’s been a growing debate among both health-conscious consumers and the fashion world about the use of animal skins (leather and fur) vs. vegan leather. While some say that using any part of an animal to make clothing is neither ethical or sustainable, there are others that argue that its still a better option to many alternatives which are synthetic and non-biodegradable (i.e. made of plastic.)

The fashion industry’s leather vs. non-leather argument continually brings up a lot of complex (and moral) issues that aren’t easily solved, but thankfully the rise of plant-based leathers may make the whole situation a thing of the past. Now there are a number of emerging companies creating innovative new fabrics and technologies that mimic the look and feel of real leather. Piñatex, a material made from pineapple leaf fibres is one you’ve likely heard of, but how about mushroom leather?

Close up of Mylea mushroom leather by Mycotech
That’s why we were intrigued by Mycotech, an Indonesia-based startup transforming mushroom waste into plant-based, vegan-friendly leather. And yes, it can be turned into stylish accessories that look and feel like the real thing (and no, it doesn’t smell like a supermarket aisle!) We caught up with CEO and co-founder Adi Reza to find out their story.

Hi Adi! You started working at Mycotech in 2012. How did you first discover you could turn mushrooms into leather?

Actually it happened by chance. At the time a group of us were working as gourmet mushroom producers. One day we unexpectedly discovered that our mushroom-growing bags were hardening and becoming more robust with use.

We started to research the phenomenon and experimenting in the kitchen. Tempeh (food made from fermented soybean), actually inspired the technology we’ve created. Since then, we’ve gained full access to the mycology lab of an Indonesian government-owned research agency and world-class laboratories in Singapore and Switzerland.

Could you help break down how the process works?

Mycotech uses mushroom mycelium as a natural adhesive. Mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus that consists of a network of white filaments. Mycelium has the ability to form a blended material that is really strong and adaptable to many uses – it’s so strong it can be made into tiles or something more flexible like leather.

The properties of this biomaterial can be controlled and adjusted while it’s growing, which makes it ready to use and easy to develop without an expensive or advanced processing method.

A close up of modern watches made from Mylea mushroom leather fabricA close up of modern watches made from Mylea mushroom leather fabric

Tell us more about the process behind making your ‘Mylea’ leather material.

First off, we create the growth medium made from agricultural waste like sugarcane, sawdust, coconut husk and rice husk. We let the mushrooms sit and grow for a few days in this mixture until the growth medium is covered in mushroom and mycelium. The fast process of growing mushrooms speeds up the time it takes to create our leather. It takes 3 to 4 years to rear a cow, but we grow our mushrooms in 60 days.

Then, we harvest the surface. After the mycelium is processed into leather, you can choose to leave it in its original state (the colour is quite unique by itself!) or you can dye it with plant-based natural dyes. After that, you can turn the Mylea leather into whatever you want — a watch strap, handbag, purse or more!

“The fast process of growing mushrooms speeds up the time it takes to create our leather. It takes 3 to 4 years to rear a cow, but we grow our mushrooms in 60 days.” 

People reading this will be wondering how it matches up to leather. What’s your take?

Right down to the texture and hand feel, the material really does look and feel like leather. We’ve made prototypes for watches, shoes, sandals, wallets, bags, clutches, you name it! After several months of use, they were still in good quality shape. Our mushroom leather has been used to produce accessories but also trims and panelling on clothing — our collaboration with Indonesian fashion designer Mel Ahyar for her SKINS Couture Collection is an example.

We’ve had quite a bit of feedback from brands we’ve collaborated with so far to say it’s a great alternative. We’re even confident enough to say that it is more leather-like than other options out there in terms of texture, appearance and malleability.

Mycotech's mushroom leather used in collaboration with Indonesian designer Mel AhyarA patchwork coat by designer Mel Ahyar using Mycotech mushroom leather fabric! 

What with the sustainable fashion movement taking off, have you noticed an increased interest in the fabric?

It’s been great watching the eco-conscious movement growing, both within the fashion industry and with consumers. It’s one of the key reasons we were passionate about starting Mycotech in the first place. Last year there was an increase in searches for sustainable products by 308%, whereas the word vegan increased by 152%! So far most customer enquiries on the business side are from Europe, the US and East Asia and a lot of it seemed to be through word of mouth.

This sustainability movement isn’t a trend in all regions, though. In Indonesia it’s still a niche market, people are just starting to consider conscious products, and only a few local brands are just starting to think about what it would take to create ethical designs. We’re always happy when local brands reach out to us though! We’re glad we can enable them to create a better product for a greener world.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

That there’s no real benchmark for what we do. The technology and processes we’re using are brand new, we’ve had to start and set the standards from scratch. That’s also exciting too! The market size for this product is huge, and although there are others creating leather alternatives out there I think there’s space for all of us as producers to create a better impact and demand.

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Female workers from Mycotech, a company making a vegan leather made from mushroom wasteA certified B-Corp, Mycotech is helping to create jobs within the local community

I love that you place a focus on measuring your impact too.

Making sure we’re building the company sustainably and in a way that helps people is key. Since 2015, Mycotech has engaged and empowered four mushroom farmer groups to supply and manufacture our raw materials. They supply us with 280kg of agricultural waste per month. It gives them additional income which creates a stable income for over 200 people involved in the process.

Another key thing we’ve homed in on is measuring greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not common for an Indonesian company to do this and governments aren’t regulating businesses to look into it. But we’re doing it to try and better understand our impact on the environment.

We collected data and energy consumption from two operational facilities, our eco-factory and a shared office. After collecting the data, the Decorum Group analysed it using an official GHG (GreenHouse Gas) protocol. You can read more here!

“Since 2015 Mycotech has engaged and empowered four mushroom farmer groups to supply and manufacture our raw materials. They supply us with 280kg of agricultural waste per month. This partnership is creating a stable income for over 200 individuals involved in the process.”

Finally, what are you most excited about for the future?

For us, last year was all about inventing and discovering the potential of mycelium leather and finding ways to introduce it to the public. Our collaborations with small to medium companies last year gave us lots of great feedback to improve the material. In 2020 we’re really excited to be collaborating with a number of big names in the fashion industry, so it’s a great opportunity for us to bring this technology to a whole new scale and to the world. Watch this space!

Stay up to date with Mycotech here.

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