Here's how mushrooms are making beauty, fashion, and living more sustainable – Harpers Bazaar India

Here's how mushrooms are making beauty, fashion, and living more sustainable – Harpers Bazaar India yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7

A cluster of mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor doesn’t immediately appear to be a powerful weapon in the fight against global warming. But now it seems we need to look at fungi with fresh eyes.
The World Economic Forum predicted in 2020 that fungi could be the future of sustainability, saying, "Easy to grow and fully biodegradable, mycelium—essentially, the vegetative part of a mushroom—could prove to be the ultimate green material for the future. It can be turned into everything from handbags and packaging to even bricks." 
So, what exactly is this relatively unknown organism that might be making your next handbag or hamburger? Mycelium is the root structure of fungi—it’s a branching, underground, web-like substance from which mushrooms develop. Very fast-growing, mycelium can be farmed and guided as it grows to create Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, textiles, construction materials and factory-farmed food. 
Leading mushroom expert, Paul Stamets calls fungi ‘the grand recyclers of the planet’. He believes they have great potential for overcoming current environmental challenges, as they both absorb carbon into soil–slowing climate change—and break down toxins such as plastics or oil, turning them into nourishment within soil. "Fungi are keystone species that create ever-thickening layers of soil, which allow future plant and animal generations to flourish," says Paul. "Without fungi, all ecosystems would fail."
Meanwhile, wellness brands are rapidly introducing mushroom-powered products into their skincare and supplement ranges, having discovered their many skin-, energy- and health-boosting properties, too. So, if mushrooms and mycelium are being used by everyone from the US Department of State to Gucci to address planetary challenges and produce healthy solutions, just how will fungi be used by us for living in the future? 
Packaging now makes up one-third of all household waste, much of which is landfill-bound. Mycelium is set to change that, both through aiding the recycling process within soil and as the key component in strong, biodegradable wrapping. Ecovative Design, a New York-based biomaterials company, has developed mycelium packaging that biodegrades completely in just over one month. Directly replacing plastic and polystyrene with a waste-free alternative, it looks like a cross between foam and cardboard.
Ecovative Design co-founder and CEO Eben Bayer explains, "With just two ingredients, mycelium and plant fibres, instead of rubbish, they become compost at the end of their natural life—you can break them up and throw them into a flowerbed."
The Magical Mushroom Company, based in Surrey, is bringing Ecovative’s solutions to Europe. Its fully compostable packaging has been used in the UK by brands such as Seedlip, Lush, and Selfridges and is already making a material difference. "Since 2020, we’ve produced more than 500,000 pieces of mushroom packaging, and by the end of 2023, we’ll effectively have removed more than 1,000 tonnes of expanded polystyrene packaging from landfill," the company claims. 
But it’s not just about growing eco-friendly blocks of foam-replacement packaging; high-end fashion is at the forefront of a new wave of sustainable mushroom-based fabrics. Sophia Wang, co-founder of US start-up MycoWorks, is a leader in the fashion industry’s mycelium makeover. In 2015, she and her team created Reishi, a leather alternative made from the mycelium root fibres of the reishi mushroom. Comparable in quality and feel to the finest animal leathers, Reishi can be used to make luxury bags and shoes.
Meanwhile, Hermès has been working with MycoWorks for several years to create Sylvania, a unique mycelium leather that will soon go into production for one of its most popular travel bags, the Victoria. And Stella McCartney collaborated with another materials house, Mylo, to create her first mushroom leather clothing range in 2021. Her world-famous Frayme bag is now available in mycelium leather, although it will set you back more than a few packs of porcini at £1,795 (approx. ₹1,82000). Health and fitness brands are also, unsurprisingly, focused on planet-friendly fabrics. In 2021, Adidas launched a Mylotm version of its iconic Stan Smith trainers made from mycelium-based material, and Lululemon has also developed Mylo yoga bags. With an increasing number or brands focusing on sustainability, Infinium Global Research estimates that the world market for vegan leather will be worth $89bn by 2025. 
It's not only the fashion world that has been looking to mushrooms for inspiration—the same is also true of the beauty sector. Origins was one of the first mainstream beauty brands to recognise their therapeutic value in skincare, launching the Mega-Mushroom line as far back as 2005. Its Mega-Mushroom Relief & Resilience Soothing Treatment Lotion, £38 (approx. ₹3,800), a lightweight moisturiser, is now the brand's number-one bestseller.
These days, mushrooms are widely found in serums, cleansers, face masks, toners, and scrubs. With 74 different mushroom-based options on its website, Cult Beauty describes mushrooms as its ‘latest and greatest obsession’. 
Alexia Inge, who founded Cult Beauty, explains why, "In beauty products, fungi are generally used to counter stress, inflammation and surface dehydration. For example, snow mushroom (the hot ingredient of the last couple of years) has better water-retention properties even than hyaluronic acid." Stress causes depleted antioxidants, oxygen and nutrients in skin, which shows up as worry lines, dryness and tired eyes, she adds. "Adaptogens found in mushrooms can reverse the negative effects that stress has on skin."
Dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross’s eponymous skincare line incorporates four different types of mushrooms. Alexia recommends his B3Adaptive SuperFoods Stress Rescue Serum for consumers with more mature skin wanting to tap into the benefits of mushrooms. At £74 (approx. ₹7,500), it’s not cheap, but it ‘packs a great moisturising punch’, according to Alexia.
Homes grown from mycelium bricks with mushroom-insulated walls sounds a bit sci-fi, but a team of UK experts states it’s far from fiction. Dr Jane Scott leads a group of Newcastle University scientists working to reduce the environmental impact of the construction industry by using mycelium to grow, rather than manufacture, building materials. "The result is a strong, lightweight biohybrid material made from natural materials, wool, mycelium, sawdust and paper," she says.
"As we begin to understand the potential of mycelium more, we will see a greater shift towards its use in our buildings and homes. At the moment, we have not developed load-bearing mycelium, so it’s not yet a replacement for structural concrete, but it certainly won’t be long before we can replace plasterboard with a wool mycelium composite."
Home furnishings are also jumping on mushrooms’ momentum. The Magical Mushroom Company has grown mycelium chairs using shaped moulds to create the structures before popping them in an oven to set them. And MushLume Lighting UK’s award-winning biofabricated lighting collection uses sustainably sourced hemp combined with rapidly growing mycelium to create a rustic lampshade.
From the Michelin-starred vegan chef Alexis Gauthier to ‘Meat-free Monday’ school lunches, the meatless machine is big business. According to a March 2023 report by Market Data Forecast, the plant-based proteins market is expected to more than double in the next five years, from around £14.7bn in 2022 to hit around £32bn by 2028. 
Many popular plant-based proteins—including Quorn, which is behind KFC’s vegan burger—are, in fact, mycoprotein, flavoured masses of mycelium. The high quality of these mushroom-based alternatives is converting many to adopt a less meat-reliant diet. Reviews for Australian mushroom meat-alternative Fable, now available in the UK, are also glowing. Promising to be juicy, meaty and satisfying, its pulled shitake mushroom can be tried in the vegan teriyaki burger at Honest Burgers, or buy its plant-based braised ‘beef’ online for £4.50 (approx. ₹455) through mightyplants.com.
This growth in decent meat substitutes is seriously good news for the planet. Livestock farming is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels, and a major driver of deforestation. Farming mushrooms is less disruptive to the Earth—both in terms of reduced land use and their ability to absorb carbon into the soil when growing. The speedy growth cycle of mushrooms in towers of vertical, space-saving racks enables a mere acre of land to produce a million pounds (weight) of crops every year. As a result, mushroom farming is growing rapidly across Europe, with 280 commercial mushroom farms now in the UK alone.
Fast growth is required to keep up with the demand for dietary supplements using functional mushrooms. Only specific varieties of mushrooms are considered functional, containing unusual combinations of vitamins, minerals, alkaloids and proteins that are believed to boost immunity, energy levels, cognitive performance and sleep. Simon Salter and his brother Andrew launched Dirtea, one of the UK’s better-known mushroom supplements, in 2021. Whether it’s Tremella ‘the beauty mushroom’, Chaga ‘the energy mushroom’ or Lion’s Mane, which Simon describes as ‘a morning shower for the brain’, he advocates adding them to your breakfast in powder form.
Dirtea’s mushroom extract powders can be drunk mixed with hot water, smoothies or coffee. The blends are rigorously tested to ensure they comply with strict EU regulations and do not contain any psychoactive compounds. Prices for an introductory pot of Reishi Powder, which is stated to help hormone balance, start at £39.99 (₹4,100). 
I believe that everyone should have more mushrooms in their life. Enhancing your day with these little wonders from the forest underground can give you natural energy and lead to being more creative, relaxed and more connected to the world around you,’ says Simon.
Some of these innovations may seem radical, but the potential for fungi to transform the way we manufacture products, wear and consume materials, look after our bodies and dispose of waste is immense. Dr Jane Scott believes that mycelium is, ultimately, the answer to a more sustainable way of living. "Not only can it make clean and healthy materials that are non-toxic and grown on waste from other industries, but it can do incredible things, such as sense pollution and break down toxic materials in the environment. 
"I see a future where materials are grown using low-energy processes and relying on natural systems, including mycelium and natural fibres. These materials thrive in the UK climate and can help us achieve carbon net zero by reducing the energy required for production processes as well as other environmental benefits for biodiversity. We can start to manufacture using 100 per cent renewable resources, and creating zero waste."
Eben Bayer sums up just how exciting the move towards mushrooms is, saying, "We’re at the beginning of an arc of biological innovation that is no less revolutionary than the dawn of the computer, enabling entire industries to move from harming the Earth to healing it."
This piece originally appeared in the November 2023 UK edition of Good Housekeeping
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