Fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil and is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions. Carbon intensive production animal hideout and Plastic for leather and synthetic clothing further exacerbates the impact of this industry, while waste from every stage of the fashion pipeline contributes to rampant air, water and soil pollution. As experts have known for years, the rise of fast fashion has enlarged the world’s resources and demonstrated the fragility of our current methods of production and consumption. If we want a future in which high-quality textiles play a role, we must act to change our habits on a system-wide scale.
When her artistic collaborator, Phil Ross, shared with her about the mycelium sculptures she has been working on for decades, artist Sophia Wang was amazed at the many possibilities in its natural pigments and textures. The mycelium consists of the root structure of the fungus and, like the edible part of the fungus, has a textural quality unlike that found in the animal or plant kingdom. Sophia had never seen anything like it and described Phil’s mycelium as “both stiff and foamy; compact and endlessly expressive.”
Cultivating mushrooms for consumption is an ancient industry that has a strong production and distribution infrastructure around the world. Mycelium’s abundance and biodegradability and carbon sequestration make it a clear choice for future sustainable goods. Companies like Eco-Friendly Design and Rhizoform LLC has spent decades developing mycelium as a packaging alternative for fragile fish and consumer goods and has even won support from Ikea and packaging giant SealedAir, but in fashion nothing has been tried on this scale yet.
Project with Sophia and Phil, MycoWorks, based on their proprietary process for mycelium cultivation called “Fine Mycelium ™”. This process uses the capacity of the fungus to bind itself and carbon-based materials to produce a durable three-dimensional structure. The first product they developed with Fine Mycelium was Reishi ™, the sustainable choice for skin that looks, feels and functions like an animal-derived version. Following their successful brand launch for Reishi in February 2020 at New York Fashion Week, MycoWorks plans to announce collaborations with some of the biggest names in the fashion world.
We sat down with Sophia Wang to discuss what makes MycoWorks a game changer for sustainable mode and what lies ahead.
China Environment Forum: What is unique about fashion as a means of presenting the delicate mycelium material?
Sophia Wang: Fashion is uniquely positioned to take the lead in new material adoption due to its global presence, impact and presence. There is a power made possible by creating high-value objects that are beautiful, aesthetically appealing, and long-lasting. A high-quality handbag or a beautiful piece of clothing becomes something intimate, that you live with, and that matters to you. When we started the company, it was an option to make things like structural panels, foam blocks, or protective packaging. But as far as introducing this new material and its extraordinary performative and expressive aesthetic qualities to the world, packaging applications do not represent all that. In our opinion, fashion is a very strong partner for introducing material in a way that adds value while communicating its own value.
CEF: What makes Reishi unique?
SW: Reishi is a highly engineered and customizable material, so we can develop specifications, be it size or features, and eliminate a lot of waste in the production process. Typically, working with animal hides is limited to what the farm can produce and the parameters of the animals you harvest. [With Reishi], we can develop the product straight to the design to eliminate waste from cutting and trimming. We may also work with customers to meet certain performance specifications, customize their appearance and develop those specifications.
CEF: How is Reishi advancing closed loop modeling in the fashion industry?
SW: We have new models for advanced material production. Mycelium grows on vegetable biomass and wood-based substrates so there is potential to centralize the production process by placing fine mycelium production alongside wood or biomass production. This highly portable technology is our strongest intervention in current supply chain models.
You can even collaborate with the fabrication of the final product. The by-product of Reishi production is actually the production of more mycelium-based products. The Reishi material is planted on a composite substrate, which self-implants in other mycelium components, which you can then use in structural panels, beams and foam packaging. There is a lot of potential closed loop in our manufacturing process, which is of great interest to us.
CEF: How does MycoWorks foster collaborative relationships with the leather industry?
SW: Instead of claiming that we are trying to replace skins, or provide an alternative to skins, we create options. Reishi, being a natural and non-plastic material, can be considered another delicate and rare skin along with other exotic skins such as crocodile, alligator, and ostrich. The leather industry, through our partners, is excited to work with us as we bring advanced material technology and a data-driven approach to the industry based on hundreds of years of craft expertise and know-how. . We have learned a lot from our partners in the leather industry and they have learned a lot from the processing methods and approaches we carry. They never had the opportunity to work with natural ingredients they could develop to specifications, which have a similar three-dimensional structure to collagen.
You might think of what we do as a crossroads between agricultural technology and the leather industry. The initial stages of our process are very similar to agricultural mushroom production in that we start with a similar substrate and inoculum. We then took some of the wisdom and models that come from tanning and finishing leather, and developed new chemicals and processes specifically for entirely new materials that are natural but not collagen or animal plastics.
CEF: What is the future for MycoWorks?
SW: In the next few years, our focus will be entirely on scaling our production processes to bring Reishi to our short list of selected brand launch partners who are exclusively engaged in fashion and luxury footwear. We opened a pilot facility and finally a full scale facility to support this launch and deliver the high volume that our brand partners have committed to. We think launching with these brand partners is the first step towards making Reishi and this technology ubiquitous as our partners are known for setting the highest standards for performance, quality and design.
In the long term, we hope to enable manufacturing co-locations to make supply chains more efficient and have an impact not only on the carbon footprint, but also on the overall production cost structure of these items.
Reishi is very measurable. I want this technology to be available in every corner of the world where there is agricultural production. There is potential worldwide for small producers to make secondary products with existing mushroom production and distribution infrastructure. Mycelium grows everywhere all over the planet and the input is very low – we just control the environment.
CEF: Is there someone who has inspired your work as a Closed Loop Innovator?
SW: As I began to understand and understand the stories I had to tell, I have to say that I was very inspired by Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory Foundation and a defender of social and environmental justice. She educates about the fashion industry through an integrated approach that links it to economic justice and understands the impact of global colonialism, as well as issues around the workforce, environment and consumer production infrastructure. The messaging and communication interventions he takes to the world and the work he does with Slow Factory are integrated stories to tell.
I think the only way we can really change the system for all is with a very integrated approach. We are positioned [at MycoWorks] to make a tremendous impact in terms of the materials and fashion industry and I’m very excited to develop a platform through MycoWorks that can influence policy and direct decisions that affect the lives of individuals.
This blog part from the Closed Loop Innovators Series, featuring stories of women around the world innovating in business, civil society and science to reduce plastic waste pollution. A condensed version will appear in the forthcoming publication of the China Environmental Forum, InsightOut: Closing the Loop on Plastic Waste in China and the US
Clare Auld-Brokish is a research assistant at the Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum where she works on urban water issues in China and global plastic waste. He recently returned from a Fulbright fellowship in Yunnan, China where he conducted environmental science research in freshwater lakes and developed wetlands.
Tongxin Zhu is a research assistant at the Wilson Center China Environment Forum. The focus is currently on marine plastic waste in China with an emphasis on consumer-facing industries. He recently graduated from Georgetown University, McCourt School of Public Policy with an MPP.
Source: Center for International Environmental Law, Edible Fungi and Medicines: Technology and Applications, Procedia Energi, United Nations News
Lead image credit: Sophia Wang, photo by Carla Tramullas, courtesy of MycoWorks.