Now, biotechnology material company Bolt Threads is bringing its renewable leather-like textile Mylo to the masses through a consortium with four major global brands: German footwear retailer Adidas, luxury fashion group Kering, which owns Gucci and Balenciaga among others, athleisure wear company Lululemon, and fashion brand Stella McCartney.
Innovation in sustainable materials has been popularised over the past few years but large-scale production and adoption has been quite a challenge. This is something Bolt Threads, Adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney are hoping to overcome.
Stefan Pursche, Adidas’ senior manager for media relations, told Inside Retail they are expecting their first product using the new material Mylo to be launched later this year.
Vegan leather vs animal leather
Mylo is a bio-based artificial leather, otherwise known as “mushroom leather”, that is made from renewable mycelium fibers — the latticework of fibres found in soil that help to break down organic matter.
Bolt Threads grows these fibres for commercial use in a controlled, indoor environment, using a highly efficient reproducing process that is intentionally designed to be low impact, and it only takes less than two weeks.
Pursche said the process emits fewer greenhouse gases and uses less water and resources than animal leather.
“For too long the industry standard has categorised materials as either natural or highly functional, but not both,” said James Carnes, vice president of Adidas’ Global Brand Strategy.
“The way to remedy this is to innovate responsibly with solutions that challenge the status quo, and products that use the best of what nature has spent millions of years perfecting, like Mylo, are critical to that,” Carnes said. “We hope this inspires others to join forces, as a more sustainable future is something that no brand can create alone.”
Carnes said at Adidas, they always consider the environmental impact of the materials they use and support the use of recycled or sustainable materials.
“In September 2020 we launched numerous Adidas sneaker classics like the Superstar and the Stan Smith in a vegan, sustainable version,” he said. “The collection is called Clean Classics. The products are free of animal ingredients and are made mainly from recycled materials.”
Adidas’ Clean Classics is a range of court classics that were redesigned to reduce the brand’s impact on the environment. The collection uses 70 per cent recycled materials for uppers and renewable and reclaimed rubber for the soles, 90 per cent natural rubber and 10 per cent recycled rubber. Natural rubber is a renewable resource tapped from rubber trees. The collection’s laces are made from paper. The resulting sneakers are vegan in an effort to reduce the brand’s use of virgin materials.
The Clean Classics collection includes the Superstar, Stan Smith, Continental 80, Top Ten, SC Premiere, Supercourt, and Superstar Bold, all of which were remade in 2020.
“Based on a life cycle approach, we take several factors into account when we evaluate the sustainability of materials, such as land use, elimination of hazardous substances, animal welfare, energy consumption and water consumption,” Pursche said.
In recent years, vegan leather has been used in upholstery, bags, clothing, purses and even footwear, and is sometimes made of polyurethane, pineapple leaves, apple peels, recycled plastic or other fruit waste.
Consumer interest in vegan footwear has soared and, according to a study conducted by Future Market Insights, was seen to have increased at a compound annual growth rate of more than 7 per cent in 2020.
According to Vincent Djen, an expert on sustainability and director of Shanghai’s Cheng Kung Garments, using vegan leather is better for the environment.
“You have to look at the entire cycle of the material,” Djen told Inside Retail. “Like for example, animal leather uses the outer skin from meat waste but it may take a lot of resources to grow that meat. Look at how the material is made, its carbon footprint, how it can be reused/recycled.”
Animal rights organisation People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said raising animals for food and leather requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water and fossil fuels. Animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants.
The organisation said the meat industry is one of the largest pollution sources of greenhouse gases and animals were often kept in terrible conditions. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations shows that globally the meat industry accounts for 14.5 per cent to 18 per cent of all human created greenhouse gases emitted each year.
PETA said when tanning the hide to create leather using the most common method, chrome tanning, requires the hide to be placed in a chromium salt bath which can be highly toxic. Disposing of the remaining toxic water can be harmful to the aquatic ecosystems.
Not compromising on style
Djen said there are still limited vegan options on footwear in the market, which was echoed by Kate Barrett, co-founder of British vegan footwear brand Allkind.
“I have been a strict vegan for many years and had long struggled to find luxury vegan footwear which matched up to the luxury brands I had previously purchased,” Barrett said. “Hayley and I were chatting one day and she had the same problem.”
Searching for vegan footwear made Barrett and co-founder Hayley McCardle realise choices were still limited in the market for classic luxury footwear, and that gave rise to the initial idea to develop Allkind.
The business was launched last year by McCardle and Barrett with products designed in Britain and ethically made in Spain.
“We offer beautiful and desirable, non-animal origin vegan footwear,” McCardle said. “Our main goal for the brand was that our shoes were vegan but we wouldn’t compromise on style, fit or quality. The shoes look, feel and act like their leather competitors, however they are 100 per cent vegan. We also knew from the outset that being a sustainable and ethical brand was going to be a huge priority for us.”
Allkind uses materials that are alternatives to traditional leather like microfiber, polyurethane, cotton, natural or recycled rubber and upcycled materials.
McCardle said they have partnered with Ecologi, who work on rainforest protection, on their tree planting programs as they are always mindful of the impact of their business on the environment.
“This year, we have helped plant 252 trees and have helped remove 25 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere,” McCardle said.
Djen said the vegan footwear industry is heading in the right direction but retailers and manufacturers need to look at the whole shoe when it comes to using sustainable materials. He said there may not be that many choices for vegan shoes now but brands like Veja, Adidas and Stan Smith are doing quite well in producing sustainable footwear.“Beyondmeat’s successful IPO shows that vegan meat is for real and can go mainstream, and if they had been successful on that, so vegan leather can also,” he said.