Eco-Friendly Fungus

On this Earth Day 2021, it seems like a good time to take a look at the rising popularity of mushrooms as a focal point of sustainability initiatives. Mushrooms and mycelium, the vegetative branching filaments (akin to a root system) of a fungus, are viable not only as eco-friendly food ingredients but as materials to replace leather or plastic in non-foods products.

Mushrooms are an appealing alternative because they can be grown with less water and energy than other crops and can thrive in a substrate made of upcycled chicken litter, cotton hulls, corn cobs, sawdust, and other agricultural waste. They can be raised on a small footprint and they give off a low level of carbon dioxide compared to other agricultural specialties. They are biodegradable and adaptable for use in a wide variety of products.

Categories where mushrooms have been making a splash of late, including some examples involving licensed properties, include:

  • Apparel, accessories, and footwear. Several fashion designers, including Stella McCartney, Kering, Adidas, Gucci, and lululemon, have joined a consortium backing a mycelium-based material called Mylo, marketed by Bolt Threads. McCartney’s first items, which she plans to integrate into future collections, were a bustier top and a pair of trousers introduced last month. Meanwhile, Adidas launched a version of its Stan Smith shoes just a couple of days ago. Hermès paired with another leading company in this space, MycoWorks, to create a version of its Victoria Bag made of MycoWorks’ mycelium fabric, Sylvania. And an Indonesian label, BRODO, debuted sneakers, sandals, watch straps, wallets, and luggage tags made of MYCL’s Mylea “leather.”
  • Food and beverages. Mushrooms make a good substitute for a range of foods, including meat-based examples. Not only are they eco-friendly, but they are classified as a “superfood” that is rich in protein, fiber, and antioxidants and low in calories. Potential benefits include supporting brain health, reducing stress, raising energy levels, improving sleep, decreasing inflammation, enhancing bone health, increasing immunity, lowering blood pressure, and assisting in weight management, among others. Mushroom jerky, chips, burgers, coffee, tea, and beer are all seeing product introductions proliferate and sales rise.
  • Health and beauty products. While mushrooms’ eco-friendliness is an advantage in this category, most of the emphasis is on the wellness benefits. Mushrooms are a staple of Eastern medicine, and functional mushroom-based wellness items, both topical and ingestible, have been expanding rapidly in the West of late. This is due to the health and medicinal properties mentioned above, with different varieties of mushrooms offering different health benefits. Mushroom-based powders, supplements, tinctures, and lotions are all expanding their availability. In skin care, specialty companies such as Origins, Tony Moly, and Volition are offering products ranging from serums and lotions to moisturizers and sleep masks. Streetwear label Brain Dead partnered with Maak Lab on mushroom-based Shroom Cola, a line of soap, fragrances, and sanitizer.
  • Psychedelics. Psychedelic mushrooms are illegal in the U.S., but many experts expect that to change. The FDA has granted breakthrough therapy status to psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in many fungi. Oregon decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms in 2020 and some other states are considering doing the same, while cities such as Denver and Oakland have also decriminalized the use of the compound. The Bob Marley estate recently signed a deal with Silo Wellness to create a global brand of functional and psychedelic mushroom-based products consisting of micro-dosing items—a nasal spray is one of the first in development—as well as associated devices and promotional merchandise.
  • Home goods and building materials. Biohm has created mycelium insulation panels. Italian interior design firm Mogu has sold flooring and acoustic tiles. A company called bioMASON paired with mycelium product developer Ecovative for a line of furniture pieces that mimic the look of traditional materials such as wood and marble. A number of furniture and interior designers have experimented with mushroom-based items such as lampshades, wine coolers, planters, chairs, and other home goods.
  • Packaging. Mycelium can be used to produce Styrofoam-like packaging that is appropriate for food, beauty products, and many other items, large and small. When the zero-waste and formerly direct-to-consumer brand Loli Beauty launched in Ulta Beauty stores, it put its products in mushroom-based trays, with a hemp-fiber wrapping. Companies such as Ecovative Design produce mycelium packaging, and marketers including Dell and Ikea have pledged to use mushroom-based packaging materials.

In addition to serving as a sustainable ingredient or material, mushrooms have also been on the rise as design elements, often associated with the Cottagecore trend embraced by Gen Z consumers. Sculptural products include 1970s-style Murano mushroom lamps, dishes (for butter, candy, and jewelry), footstools, salt and pepper shakers, and the like. Printed fabric and paper products featuring mushroom-themed surface designs range from dresses to throw pillows. Among the many companies involved in licensing that have latched onto this trend are Gucci, with its mushroom-patterned leggings, and Supreme, with its mushroom-shaped FLOS Bellhop lamp.

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