Is Mushroom Leather Marketing Engaging in Greenwashing?


First, two definitions:

1. Mushroom leather, noun (also known as mycelium leather): a relatively new leather-like material in the fashion industry, which is made from the underground structure of mushrooms (mycelium). It is marketed as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal leather. This is a central reason for its appeal.

2. Greenwashing, verb: a marketing tactic used by some companies to present themselves or their products as environmentally friendly when in reality, they may not be as sustainable as they claim.

Greenwashing seems to cash in on the social preference for products that are less dependent on the chemical-industrial complex, without necessarily putting in the effort to verify all claims and implications. This can be sneaky, and potentially not very eco-friendly.

One common technique is to aggressively post about some green features of a product in order to muddy the waters around less-green features. For example, you have probably seen labels that list all the chemicals that aren’t in your shampoo, lotion, or organic cheez-its. Well, there are a million and one things that aren’t in a product, so this can be misleading marketing; perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally. Claims about “pleather,” vegan leather made from plastic – mostly polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (vinyl or PVC) – are a great example of this. Yeah, pleather is animal-free, but it’s… literally petroleum. Here’s a great Slate article on that issue.

Indeed, the conversation around pleather has set the stage for the conversation around non-animal leather products in many ways. It might be the first thing you think of when you hear “vegan leather.” Pleather has proven market interest in non-animal leather, which is great. But the issue of non-animal leather’s “green-ness” is now a tangled web. It seems that the budding mushroom leather industry has been left to pick apart this web. If we in the industry want mushroom leather to gain market share and live up to its promise, we are at a critical stage, and we must communicate clearly and honestly to build up trust with potential customers.

The Case of Mushroom Leather

In the case of mushroom leather, proponents argue that the material is more sustainable than traditional leather. It is true that the production of mushroom leather uses far less land, water, and energy compared to the production of animal leather. Additionally, mycelium is a rapidly renewable resource, which cannot be said for the production of animal leather. (And don’t forget the methane-rich cow farts — that’s a big part of the equation.)

On the other hand, it can be argued that the marketing of this material as a more sustainable alternative to traditional leather is misleading, as the production process still involves the use of some non-renewable resources, the release of carbon emissions, and other un-green side effects. So, how can we separate the pros from the cons?


In reading some articles to prepare to write this post, I came across three fantastic pieces by the Business of Fashion (BOF) journal. If you’re into mushroom leather, you might consider subscribing. In a few pieces — a short podcast called, “Is Vegan Leather Better?,” an article called, “The Truth About Vegan Leather,” and another article called, ‘Vegan Leather’ or Plastic?” — BOF explores the nuance of mushroom leather claims. They discuss why the truth is more complicated than a quick tagline, and what mushroom leather brands need to do to earn (and keep) the trust of their customers and the fashion industry at large. I was heartened to read such thoughtful writing on the intersection between fashion, sustainability, capitalism, and sociology.

BOF writes that “brands are using buzzy but vague marketing terms like ‘vegan leather’ and ‘plant-based’ to describe materials with vastly different properties and compositions.” While either of those claims could be technically true, the devil is in the details.

It’s All a Bit Unclear

Certainly, no fabric is 100% beyond reproach. No material can be affordable, widely available, regenerative to ecosystems, plastic-free, and durable. But claims about mushroom leather have come pretty dang close. Mushroom leather has some amazing properties, but we should avoid trumpeting out every possible detail in breathless marketing language in hopes of gaining the ethical high ground over competitors.

The details of animal-free leather products can quickly get tangled. For example, what percent of plastic is allowable in a “plant-based” leather? It’s not a regulated term. So, is a thin coating of plastic acceptable? What about 10%, 50%, or 99%? With regards to 100% plastic leather (pleather); should we consider polyurethane preferable to other types of plastic? Consumers shouldn’t need a chemistry degree to make ethical purchasing decisions!

What about carbon emissions? Does vegan leather have a lower carbon footprint than cow leather if it’s made from 100% petroleum? If plant-based leather is grown indoors with power from the electric grid, does it have a lower carbon footprint than pleather?

What if plant-based leather comes from a process that erodes soil, displaces wildlife, or pollutes the Gulf of Mexico? None of this is even to mention the working conditions and chemical burden of the people harvesting, processing, and working with these various materials. Oh, and don’t get us started on the tanning process. (Or the cow farts.)

Let’s Get Real

Maybe this whole conversation is leftover baggage from pleather; the imperfect stepping stone between cow leather and mushroom leather. Maybe this is “eco-skeptic” babble, to quote the Slate article from above. Even if that’s true, we can’t just ignore these questions.

The answers are not as simple as just telling the truth, because the truth is a multivariable 3D venn diagram. But I think we can add transparency to the marketing buzz, help people make responsible decisions and prioritize their own favorite criteria, and acknowledge the complexity rooted in this innovative material marketplace, all while ethically promoting this amazing material. It’s a tall order, but I think it’s doable. How, you ask?

A Modest Proposal

We can start by never underestimating the customer. It’s safe to say that anyone looking into mushroom leather is motivated, curious, and willing to make time to research and shop based on their values.

Next, avoid buzz. Mushroom leather is very exciting without using overly buzzy marketing terms! Try to let the specifications speak for themselves.

Last, and related to the previous point, tell the truth by making the information clear. Is it grown with renewable energy? Just say that. Is it soft? Just say that. Is it coated with a thin layer of plastic? Just say that.

A Better Standard

Mushroom leather has the potential to transform the leather industry. In order for these brands to earn (and keep) the trust of their customers and the fashion industry at large, we must proceed carefully and with maximum transparency. It’s best for us as consumers, and it’s best for this world we take care of.