Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall.

Are you looking for a new leather jacket or pair of shoes? Well get this– they might be made from mushrooms! Here to tell us about this new material and how it compares to real or faux leather are Naomi Deokule and Anjali Shah!

Welcome, Naomi and Anjali!

Naomi Deokule: Hi Megan!

Anjali Shah: Hey!

Megan Hall: So, what is this leather-like stuff that’s made of mushrooms?

Naomi Deokule: It’s actually called Mycoleather. 

Megan Hall: And why do we need this kind of fabric?

Anjali Shah: Well, real leather and even so-called vegan leather are pretty energy-intensive. 

Megan Hall: In what way?

Naomi Deokule: Let’s start with real leather. As you know, it’s made from cow skin. And it takes a lot of energy to grow and harvest food to feed cows. Plus, cow burps create methane, which is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. 

Anjali Shah: On top of that, all of the chemicals used in the leather tanning and curing process create A LOT of pollution and waste. 

Megan Hall: Ok, so is vegan leather better?

Naomi Deokule: Different, maybe, but not really “better”.

Naomi Deokule: Most leathers branded “vegan” are made from plastics like PVC or polyethylene. And do you know what plastics are made of?

Megan Hall: Fossil fuels?

Naomi Deokule: Exactly. That’s where alternatives like Myco leathers come in. 

Megan Hall: You said that it’s made from mushrooms, but how does that actually work? 

Naomi Deokule: Yes, well, to be precise, it’s made from the underground part of a mushroom. 

Anjali - It’s called the mycelium, and it usually looks like thousands of tiny threads. 

Megan Hall: But how do these little threads make something that looks like leather? 

Anjali Shah:  It’s a complicated process, but the simple version is, you grow the mycelium on organic materials like sawdust or molasses. to create a solid foam. That foam is then squeezed really tight  to make  a leather-like material. 

Megan Hall: But does it really act like leather? 

Naomi Deokule: To find out, we visited the Rhode Island School of Design’s Nature Lab, where students and researchers study and produce Myco materials. RISD student Arvind Abhallum showed us some samples. I was able to feel them…. and may have accidentally broken one….

Naomi Deokule: “Shoot. Oh god okay. I’m so sorry.”

Anjali Shah: Aside from that one mishap, most of the materials were flexible and sturdy. I could definitely see how they could be used for leather bags and clothing. 

Megan Hall: ok, so they act like leather, but how much energy does it take to make this mushroom fabric? 

Naomi Deokule: I asked RISD graduate student and biomaterial researcher Natalie Rizk that question. She says mycoleathers are WAY less energy-intensive than the other leather options. 

Natalie Rizk: You don't need plots of land where cows can graze and release, carbon into the environment. You know, there's a lot of space efficiency when it comes to mushrooms like they can be grown in the lab. They grow really fast.

Anjali Shah: Also- you don’t need lights to grow mushrooms. They thrive in the dark! 

Natalie Rizk: And it’s also a living organism, it’s also taking CO2 out of the environment.

Megan Hall: Ok, it sounds like mushroom leather is the way to go! But, can I actually buy this stuff anywhere?

Naomi Deokule: Yes. Companies like Adidas, Lululemon, Hermes, and Stella McCartney have started making products with mushroom leathers. In fact, I just bought one of Lululemons’ mushroom leather yoga mats. God, Shivasna on that thing has never felt better!

Anjali Shah: As Natalie from RISD says-

Natalie Rizk: Science and design are converging in a place where nature is like our collaborator. Mycelium’s the future– I think fungi are the future.

Naomi Deokule: So, the next time you want a pair of leather shoes or a new leather bag, look into trying something made from this new material. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Naomi and Anjali! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.