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The vegan leather market is predicted to be worth almost $90bn in the next five years

A plant-based alternative to a material with an immense carbon footprint, vegan leather is the next step in the sustainable fashion movement.

2020’s recurring trend? Sustainability. Major brands around the world are making significant changes to be more environmentally conscious. Consumers are choosing to shop second-hand. And fast fashion? We all know that’s old news. So, what about leather?   

A material renowned for its immense carbon footprint, but one that’s present in a huge number of items we own, leather is rarely considered part of the sustainability conversation. A great deal of the bags, shoes, and accessories we’ve seen during this year’s fashion weeks have been made from leather and, despite its very negative impact on our planet, according to Vogue it’s pretty unlikely that people will stop using it in the near future. 

‘We don’t notice how much leather is used in fashion because it’s the norm,’ says Emily Farra, writing for the magazine. ‘For all the chatter we’re bound to hear about organic cotton, non-toxic dyes, renewable energy, upcycling, vintage, and ‘designing clothes that last,’ it’s doubtful that leather’s just going to disappear.’ 

The solution is finding a replacement that isn’t worse for the environment than the original material itself. Take Stella McCartney, for example. The only luxury designer to have never used animal skins in any one of her collections, she’s received a lot of criticism in the past from those arguing that faux fur and leather materials are actually more toxic because they’re derived from non-biodegradable plastics. While this is true, what people tend to get wrong is thinking that real fur and leather are ‘natural’ materials that’ll eventually decompose. 

‘An animal decomposes when it’s natural, but after all of the chemical treatments [applied] to a leather handbag, it isn’t going to decompose in your wardrobe,’ says McCartney. ‘That product is staying alive because of the chemicals that have been put on it. The animals leather kills, the toxins, the chemicals, the cutting down of rainforests, the food and water and electricity it takes to make a leather bag? Considerably more than a synthetic bag.’ 

Without an obvious middle ground between animal skins and plastic therefore, you’re probably wondering what a conscious shopper is to do. Well, although options are currently rather limited (unless you’re an avid collector of McCartney’s clothes), there is one thing that doesn’t involve completely reinventing synthetics or overhauling the leather industry in its entirety: vegan leather. 

Beginning to experiment with living materials back in the 90s, creator Philip Ross eventually came up with a particular way of manipulating mycelium cells so that they can grow, weave together, and form specific shapes. Teaming up with MycoWorks and scientist Matt Scullin, Ross decided to transform his invention into something that the fashion industry could use instead of leather, and that’s how vegan leather came to be. 

‘As the mycelium grows, we induce the cells to tangle together so we get a really strong, durable material. We can engineer it to make different [versions] for different applications, which you can’t do with animal or plastic,’ says Scullin. ‘We’re working with fashion brands to understand their specifications for ready-to-wear, handbags, and shoes, and can change the growth conditions to make the Reishi thinner or thicker, denser or less dense, and softer.’

Part of a market that’s growing exponentially and predicted to be worth almost $90bn by 2025, it’s been almost two decades in the making. Also known as ‘fine mycelium,’ the ground-breaking material is fungus-grown, looking, feeling, and even smelling like real leather. That’s right, Ross and his team have successfully manufactured an alternative that’s both totally realistic and natural at the same time, and that’s where the appeal lies.

With little to no downsides — a rare feat in the world of material alternatives — fine mycelium is the only thing on the market that has the same feel and durability as animal leather. Developed with specific leather qualities and techniques in mind (from croc-embossing to stitching), its revolutionary production process is set to transform how designers fabricate and manufacture leather in the long-term. ‘The consumer is never going to choose sustainability over performance,’ says Scullin. ‘From my point of view, performance is everything, and we knew if this material didn’t bend the right way or stitch the right way, brands wouldn’t find it compelling.’

Usually sustainable fabric alternatives don’t feel luxurious, they’re made from recycled materials that still shed a lot of micro-plastics, or they require a whole lotta energy and water to produce. But fine mycelium needs only mild temperatures and dark environments to thrive so the factories it’s grown in have a seriously low energy cost. And because it can be grown into exact shapes, the process produces little to no waste, just like 3D-printing.

It’s not a full on ‘replacement’ for leather (and Ross doesn’t brand it one), but by the looks of it, it’s well on its way to being one and who knows, maybe in a few decades animal products will have disappeared from our lives completely.

Here’s hoping.


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