Following sneakers made from recycled materials, the footwear industry is now experimenting with biomaterials derived from mushrooms.
Revisiting the damage caused by traditional leather shoes seems redundant, especially considering the extensive replacement of premium animal-origin materials with eco-leather, particularly in the sneaker industry. According to ‘Natural Fiber Welding,’ a global company producing high-performance circular materials free of plastic, in 2010, shoes classified as ‘leather upper‘ accounted for approximately 53% of total imports to the US. By 2021, this figure had decreased to 39%, accompanied by a 30% increase in production and importation compared to the same period in 2010.
These numbers unmistakably indicate the decline of animal-origin leather as the preferred material for brands and manufacturers. However, contrary to common belief, this shift was not driven by ethical or eco-friendly considerations but rather by a inclination toward more cost-effective production. Instead of a positive change, it is an insidious one:
Less animal leather translates to more Plastic.
Over the last decade, the footwear industry has focused on plastic, seeking ways to reduce its usage and envisioning a new circular material production chain that aligns with environmental well-being and the rapid pace of mass production.
Fashion sector research firms have recognized the potential of mushrooms as a replacement for fossil fuels for several years. Recently, there has been considerable discussion about the magic of mushrooms, with a real push toward a future of sneakers and fashion. Some results have been promising: the properties of mycelium seem to position the biomaterial in the realm of “potential solutions.”
Mycelium, or MYLO leather experimented by Bolt Threads, was used by adidas as the base for a Gazelle sneaker, providing the first real glimpse of a global brand producing on a large-scale using mycelium. However, there are caveats: firstly, the adidas Gazelle was a special collaboration with vegan designer Sean Wotherspoon, limited to only 200 pairs. Secondly, adidas used all existing MYLO material rolls, which are no longer in development, losing a significant part of their value. Neither point seems ideal for significant commercial profitability.
In fact, recent developments have highlighted various issues related to mycelium production, discouraging investors and manufacturers. Additionally, mycelium has not yet met the necessary requirements for a casual shoe’s entry into the market, namely withstanding the stresses of 100,000 Bally flex cycles.
However, other mycelium-focused companies have made these data public. MycoWorks, for example, publicly stated that its Reishi material can withstand only 5,000 hits with the Bally flexometer – impressive for an innovative material, but not enough for regular daily use.
“The only future that makes sense is one in which performance and true sustainability are achieved through global production and optimized costs,”
According to the Natural Fiber Welding CEO Luke Haverhals, adding:
“If all these factors are not met simultaneously, footwear brands cannot adopt it.”
The experimentation continues, raising questions about the integrity of mycelium as an organic biomaterial. Tests on the fabric have shown that to reinforce and make it usable, it was necessary to mix it with petrol-plastic, a material it was meant to replace.
Changing materials is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle, and if mycelium does not fit into current mass production and consumption systems, perhaps some pieces are missing, or maybe we are trying to solve the wrong puzzle. Therefore, processes may prove as important as the product itself.
“The future of footwear depends not only on exploring sustainable materials but also on a paradigm shift in the design process,”
As suggested by Vergun, and perhaps that is the way to address the problem.
Once these structural issues are overcome, the choice between these materials may depend on factors such as availability, cost, environmental impact, and desired properties. The future may involve a combination of these and other next-generation circular materials, such as bioplastics used in sneaker production, to meet the growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products.
Driven by a understandable desire and urgent need to replace petroleum-based plastics and toxic processes, attention often focuses on scale: how can the next-generation materials industry manufacture enough products to satisfy large companies that currently produce staggering volumes daily?
If, after years of development and production, scientists like those at Bolt Threads have only managed to create enough MYLO for a few bag collaborations and 200 pairs of shoes, how can innovators hope to meet the production appetites of a company like Nike, for example?
Many experts are optimistic about biomaterials like mycelium or even bacteria replacing leather and plastic, although this optimism is tempered by the realism and pragmatism of innovation work.
The future undoubtedly lies in materials obtained from natural and renewable, non-toxic raw materials that consider the end of the life cycle, such as cotton, lyocell, wool, hemp, silk, etc. These are already tested materials on a large scale. However, the industry’s commitment to change itself represents the biggest challenge: convincing those who make the most profits that progress must undergo a radical shift.
Therefore, the future of sneakers might lie in mushroom farming. It’s a future vastly different from the current one: a future where large companies no longer hold the monopoly on production, and localized efforts lead not only to a lesser impact but also to a higher level of respect and understanding for the product itself.
However, this kind of change doesn’t just happen; it is brought about by visionaries, consumers, insiders, and influencers whose messages reach the masses.