It looks and feels like leather, and it's the size of a cowhide. But a new sample of material at a startup's office in San Francisco came from mushrooms, not a factory farm. In a year or two, you might be wearing it on your feet.
Mycoworks, the startup, uses mycelium—the root-like fibers that make up the base of mushrooms—to transform plant waste into the new material. "They're breaking down the cellulose, and they reorganize those sugars and proteins," says Philip Ross, chief technology officer at Mycoworks.
The cowhide-sized sample took a couple of weeks to grow, versus the three years it would take to raise livestock for a piece of leather. No animals suffered to make it. And while livestock requires massive resources, the mushroom process happens in a closed loop. A pair of leather shoes might produce 33 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution; the mushroom "leather" is carbon neutral.
"Typically, the material that we grow our hides on would be thrown away or would just rot," says Ross.
The plant material—which might be corn cobs, for example—takes in carbon dioxide as it grows, but if it's thrown out, it ends up emitting that back into the atmosphere. If it's transformed into the new material, the carbon can end up captured in a pair of shoes. Each batch of plant waste can grow multiple pieces of the leather. Any leftover waste can be sold to farmers as a product that's added to soil to help grow food.
By manipulating the process, it's possible to end up with different types of leather. Altering the growing environment might make it turn out like alligator skin rather than something that looks like calfskin. It's also possible to create leather-like materials that could never come from animals.
"We can create densities inside the tissue as it's growing, so we can have a sort of precision effect that you could just never get the way an animal hide would grow," says Ross. Designers can manipulate the material so it wicks water differently, or so it can be used as a fastener. The material is also naturally antibiotic. It could even possibly be used as a "probiotic" for the feet—instead of spraying shoes with a chemical spray to fight odor, the material might be able to naturally support the beneficial bacteria on your skin.
Though the new prototypes are drawing interest from the animal rights and environmental crowds, Ross thinks the product is most likely to succeed because it can compete with ordinary leather on cost. The company plans to open a Bay Area-based production facility next year, and early materials will cost the same as high-end leather. But in four years, with higher volumes of production, they project that the material will cost $5 a square foot—cheap enough to compete with any leather anywhere.
"More than the ethical or ideological issues, its market acceptance will come about because it's so cheap to create it," says Ross.
The company has agreements with a few shoe manufacturers to start buying the material when production begins in 2017.
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Correction: The material will cost $5 a square foot, not $5 a yard, as this article previously stated.