Luxury + Sustainability: Hermès & Mushroom Leather

April 3, 2021
image courtesy of Hermes

We all know that the fashion industry has a huge issue with sustainability. Industry conversations about the problem tend to focus on the carbon footprint and waste produced by fast fashion; however, the luxury market negatively impacts the environment in its own way. 

Luxury brands are all about high quality which often means animal leather is the primary material used to create their signature handbags, shoes, belts, and more. The environmental impact of animal leather is seen in deforestation to free up land for raising livestock, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical leaks into water streams as a result of the tanning process that makes animal skin wearable. Ocean life that lives in affected water streams, animals that eat the plants that grow in and around these water streams, and even humans that eat fish or other ocean critters can grow sick from the chemical exposures. 

In addition, to maintain their reputation for high quality and exclusivity, many luxury brands burned products at various points of the pipeline; including products that didn't pass quality checks and products that went unsold. For a long-time, luxury retailers and consumers were ignorant to these problems which had no effect on their daily lives. However, as the consumer base changes with newer generations who care so much more about these kinds of environmental and often social problems, the luxury market is forced to evolve as well.

In late 2017, Gucci announced it was no longer using animal fur in its collections and other luxury houses such as Chanel and Burberry followed suit within the following year. As animal skin is ousted, new materials are being developed and introduced, many of them being plant-based. Imitation leather has existed for years, though it is often made from plastic which is more sustainable than animal leather but not free of chemicals and takes years to degrade. Mushroom leather appears to be the solution we've been searching for.

Mushroom leather is made from mycelium, the root structure of a mushroom, which can be produced to imitate the properties of leather. Many companies are developing mycelium-based leather, including Bolt Threads, MycoWorks, and Ecovative. Bolt Threads has a consortium of luxury partners—comprised of Stella McCartney, Kering (owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, etc), Adidas, Lululemon, and more—that plan to release products made from mycelium-based leather, Mylo, this year. MycoWorks recently announced a partnership with Hermès to produce the 'Victoria' travel bag in Sylvania, a fine-tuned version of mycelium to closely imitate leather. MycoWorks closed a $45M series B funding round last year, with investors including John Legend, Natalie Portman, and several undisclosed major fashion brands. Ecovative recently secured $60M in series B funding, bringing its total capital raised to $100M, and plans to further research and development at its “Mycelium Foundry” and increase production capacity.

The trend of luxury brands investing in companies that prioritize sustainability in manufacturing has picked up over the past year but started in 2019 when Chanel took a minority stake in Evolved by Nature, a green chemistry company that is exploring alternatives to the toxic chemicals used in clothing manufacturing. The company has similarly invested in Sulapac, a start-up dedicated to reducing plastic waste with biodegradable packaging innovation.

Hermès' offering of a vegan leather handbag may seem inappropriate given the brand's history of producing high-quality leather goods without acknowledging the environmental and social impacts of leather.  However, fans of the brand desire the high quality and long product life cycles that are standard in Hermès products and justify the higher price tag to avoid the cheap quality of fast fashion. These conscious eco-friendly consumers are more directly targeted by Hermès offering mushroom-leather and will indulge in a product that has less of an environmental impact from the beginning of its life cycle.

*This post is a response to Business of Fashion's 'Exclusive: Hermès Bets on Mushroom-Based ‘Leather’', published March 11, 2021.

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