The fashion industry is one of the biggest on the planet, driving culture, commerce and celebrity. Even if you dislike “fashion,” you likely still have a closet with clothes made from all kinds of materials — from cotton, linen, leather, and wool, to nylon, vinyl and polyester … the list goes on. These materials matter. They are a major reason why fashion — an industry that makes over 100B items per year — is amid a sustainability crisis.
Contributing to that crisis is leather, one of the most pivotal materials in the fashion world. In 2020 alone, the five biggest luxury houses sold over $50B of leather goods and that’s in addition to all the non-luxury bags, shoes, belts, furniture, wallets and much more being made. But the challenge with leather is that it requires raising cows, and lots of them, a very resource-intensive process on a resource-constrained planet.
The good news is that no one loves leather because it comes from a cow. And so, to solve this piece of the fashion sustainability puzzle, one company called Bolt Threads is making leather from fungi, and specifically, mycelium, which for billions of years has been growing beneath our feet and serving as ecological connective tissue to all life on earth. A sprawling, infinitely renewable, interlaced web, it threads through the soil, breaks down organic matter and provides nutrients to plants and trees.
“The fashion industry is not solely functional — it fulfills our innate human drive to reveal our confidence, creativity and self-expression. Fashion is intrinsic to who we are, but it’s simply not sustainable in its current form,” said Dan Widmaier, founder and CEO of Bolt Threads on the main stage at TED. “I believe the answers to this problem are available in nature, and that by tapping into 4 billion years’ worth of knowledge with science, we can transform materials and our environmental future.”
Bolt Threads’ scientists and engineers have found a way to regeneratively harness mycelium (in vertical farming facilities powered by 100% renewable energy) and transform it into a material called Mylo that looks and feels like animal leather. Soft, supple — and less harmful to the environment than other forms of animal leather — Mylo is backed by adidas and lululemon, which have created and released limited edition collections with the material, among other fashion and other industry innovators currently prototyping ahead of future releases.
As Widmaier recently discussed at TED, soon, all the materials in your closets, homes and cars could be made with something designed regeneratively from nature. To get there, it’s up to scientists to engineer those materials, companies to bring them to market, customers to invest in them, and everyone to take note of the clothes they’re buying. In this way, more alternative materials that harness nature, not cows, can be incorporated into our wardrobes.