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Can Mushroom Leather and Spider Silk Reach Critical Mass for Fashion?

Bolt Threads is one of the top innovators in materials science-driven fashion fabrications, but its ambition to create sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives to leather and produce scalable spider microsilk is not without challenges.

A former Nike and Patagonia alum, VP of product development Jamie Bainbridge is among the executives at Bolt Threads taking inspiration from nature to create a new generation of materials that promise to “change your whole wardrobe,” the website claims.

Changing a fashion system accustomed to raw materials coming from cotton fields and forests isn’t the easiest task.

At The Lead Innovation Summit 2019 on Wednesday, Bainbridge echoed what many others before her have said about balancing sustainability with innovative product. The vast majority of consumers don’t want brands and makers to sacrifice great product for the sake of sustainability, but they’ll feel good if the awesome thing they’re buying is also great for the planet.

If you can do both, if people “love the story” behind your eco-minded product, “You kill two birds with one stone,” Bainbridge said.

Because Bolt Threads is exploring new territory by growing leather-like textiles from mushroom cells and spinning up spider silk in a laboratory, the brand keeps sustainability front and center throughout the end-to-end production process. Scaling up from small amounts of material to mass-production requirements “brings a whole new set of problems to work out” before Bolt gets to the next level, Bainbridge explained.

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The biggest headache for now? Responsibly managing the chemicals used to produce the finished look and hand feel consumers expect from leather- and silk-mimicking materials, admitted Bainbridge, a member of the chemicals management working group of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Bolt Threads must not only ensure chemical substances and treatments infused in its Mylo mushroom leather and Microsilk are “inherently safe,” but it also needs to confirm “waste from those products is going to a place that we know and we can control,” she added.

There are signs, too, that consumers are starting to catch on to the many layers of nuance involved in the eco-fashion movement.

Coming from the outdoor industry where pre-competitive collaboration was the norm, Bainbridge believes a similar approach in fashion could truly make meaningful strides in helping the industry better incorporate sustainable principles rather than leaving individual brands to innovate in silos.

And then there’s the seemingly endless job of trying to evangelize the industry about why Mylo makes sense.

“We spend most of our time trying to convince people and not spending our time trying to do the hard work of getting into the market,” Bainbridge explained. But with a rush of brands eager to incorporate Mylo into their product lines, “we’ve really had to limit who’s going to be able to get it,” she added.

The brands that need some coaxing tend to harbor concerns over whether Mylo will truly reach production scale in a feasible timeframe, Bainbridge said. Given that Mylo is still a very new material concept, its potential to scale is “not there yet.”

“It has a long way to go before it gets to a point where it’s a very repeatable material,” Bainbridge added.