The brands are the founding members of a new cooperative, spearheaded by Amsterdam sustainable innovation platform Fashion for Good and New York materials company Ecovative, to bring the latter’s petroleum-free and animal-friendly Forager Hides material to the consumer market at scale.
Working together with Ecovative’s team of mycologists and engineers, the companies will co-develop custom mycelium materials, which are coaxed into shape from the root network that sprouts mushrooms, for a range of products and applications, including clothing and footwear.
While specifics, such as rollout dates, are currently scant, the idea behind the cooperative is to ramp up production in earnest, allowing Ecovative to transition from its current infrastructure to larger-scale vertical farms capable of churning out millions of square feet of mycelium material annually.
Founded in 2007, Ecovative is no stranger to farming mushrooms. For years, the company has been molding mycelium to create a natural, biodegradable alternative to polystyrene packaging. It was also an early supplier of Bolt Threads, maker of Mylo, another ersatz cowhide that has gained traction with brands such as Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney. The two firms ended up filing dueling lawsuits, with each one accusing the other of breach of contract.
Another player in the increasingly crowded—and sometimes controversial—alternative-leather space is MycoWorks, which worked with Hermès to create the “hybrid of nature and technology” known as Sylvania. Other buzzy leather fakers include Natural Fiber Welding, which has partnerships with Allbirds and Pangaia, and Vegea, which has linked arms with H&M and Ganni, although they use plant matter instead of fungi.
Ecovative doesn’t use “leather” to describe Forager Hides but rather refers to the material as a textile “because it’s not leather but is poised to perform in a similar way to both plastic alternatives and conventional leather,” Gavin McIntyre, the company’s co-founder and director of business development, told Sourcing Journal.
Launched in March, Forager Hides is still very much in beta as Ecovative works with brands like Bestseller and PVH Corp. to solicit feedback from a performance perspective. It’s also working with a number of tanneries to “take advantage of the centuries of craftsmanship and artisanal processes” in that field, he added.
To pin down the environmental benefits of the process, Ecovative plans to invest in a full life-cycle assessment next year. Early indications are promising, however. Mushrooms require no light or water and very little space to grow. They also sequester rather than generate carbon, which could appeal to brands working to achieve ambitious climate goals. Equally important, they don’t carry the same baggage as cattle farming, which environmentalists blame for rampant deforestation in critical ecosystems such as the Amazon.
The process of making the material begins with a “tenacious” forest mushroom, which Ecovative cultivates on beds of disinfected agricultural waste, such as plant stalks and seed hulls, sourced within 500 miles of its manufacturing facilities in Green Island. Using its AirMycellium platform, the firm is able to generate sheets that are 1.8 meters in width and 12 meters in length, the equivalent of four bovine hides. It can also modulate the mycelium for tensile strength, density and fiber orientation depending on what is required.
“By adapting off-the-shelf mushroom cultivation equipment with some of our own secret sauce and processes, we’re able to scale this quickly and with industry expertise, while also providing something that’s distinct and different from other mycelium materials that are in the market,” McIntyre said.
While Ecovative’s core material doesn’t include any petrochemicals, he admitted that the traditional tanning process could still imbue Forager Hides with substances that are associated with negative health and environmental impacts, such as polyurethane finishes and perfluorinated treatments.
“Our focus with the tanneries that we’re working with today is to focus on bio-based solutions to solve the same problems first and foremost,” McIntyre said. “With that said, we are focused on delivering the best hide that we can to the market, and if other parties do elect to use specific topcoats to meet a specific performance need, we don’t look to inhibit that, but we do like to direct away from it as much as possible.”
It helps to think of Forager Hides, he said, as an evolving process rather than a finished product.
“We intend this to be an ongoing development,” McIntyre said. “As we have process improvements either to new mycelium species or perhaps new ways of incubating the product within the same type of equipment, we’ll release those over time so that we’re not constrained to just having one product offering and can really have a suite of materials that can solve a wide range of material needs within the industry.”