Fashion is Facing a Sustainability Crisis – How Can MyloTM Help?
Written by Ted Jiang, LCA Engineer and Libby Sommer, Director of Corporate Responsibility
Early this year our founder and CEO, Dan Widmaier, got the opportunity to bring Mylo to the TED stage. We’re beyond excited that his talk is now available to the public. In just eleven minutes Dan covers a lot of ground from the early days of Bolt Threads to the modern-day challenges around fashion and materials. It’s not a stretch to say the industry is in a sustainability crisis, and the challenges are numerous: climate change, deforestation, overproduction & overconsumption (more than 100 billion pieces of clothing annually), lack of traceability into supply chains, hazardous chemistry, and poor labor practices. In his TED Talk, Dan explains why Mylo can help the apparel and footwear industry meet many of its lofty sustainability goals. In this blog, we unpack further the data behind Dan’s TED talk, and the benefits of Mylo for an industry that has big challenges to solve.
As a company grounded in science, we take seriously our role in putting forth reliable information. So it was with great delight when the TED organization fact-checkers asked us to back up all claims in Dan’s talk. From peer-reviewed literature to diplomas, no detail was left out. It was arguably the most thorough fact-checking process we’ve ever seen. Let’s dive in.
Leather is one of the most important materials in the fashion world. And this industry (and others) use a lot of it. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that global leather production in 2020, measured in hides, was 12.48 million tonnes. In that year alone, leather accounted for roughly $50 billion in sales from Europe’s five largest luxury brands. Leather is an amazing material, and it’s inextricably linked to raising cows, lots of and lots of cows.
FAO reports the hides and skins of over 1.4 billion animals¹ were used for leather production, most of which were cattle. The biggest impacts of leather can be traced back to the sheer number of cattle raised on this planet. According to FAO’s Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), the cattle industry generates around 5.0 Gt CO2-eq annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which equates to roughly 10.6% of the global total.² This is about the total annual GHG emissions for the United States.³
The hefty impact of the cattle industry can be ascribed to two main reasons–the inefficiency of its resource consumption and the large number of pollutants it generates.
Let’s talk about resource consumption first. Livestock is one of the biggest land users globally, accounting for 38.5% of habitable land on the planet.⁴ Cattle raising, no matter feedlot-based or pasture-based, is especially land-intensive due to cattle’s large feed consumption capacity. In the contiguous U.S. (lower 48 states), about 41% of the land revolves around livestock, mostly cattle, for either grazing or growing feed…let that sink in.
Over the last three decades⁵ in South America, about 154 million hectare in natural tree cover were lost, with an average annual loss rate of 4.7 million hectare. That means every minute the continent suffered deforestation the size of 12.4 soccer fields. Only a small portion of lost natural tree cover was directly converted to cropland. Pasture expansion, as proved by many studies, is the primary reason (upwards of 70% of total forested land) for this deforestation. Such pasture land is often later converted to cropland, pushing ranchers into clearing yet more pasture land and continuing the deforestation cycle.⁶
Not only do cattle require intensive resource consumption, but the cattle industry releases significant pollutants into the environment. For example, The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report that the livestock sector contributes to about 32% of the global anthropogenic methane emissions, the majority of which comes from the enteric fermentation of cattle. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, measured by 100-year global warming potential. On top of air pollutants, the cattle industry also emits macronutrients, pathogens, and veterinary pharmaceutical residues into the terrestrial freshwater system, threatening the health of humans and the ecosystem.
So how can Mylo help address the sustainability hurdles around leather, which are tightly associated with the upstream livestock industry? The obvious solution is using an alternative raw material – one that does not consume as much resources or generate as much emissions as cattle – and that leads us to consider mycelium.
As Dan stated in his TED talk, “It takes roughly 97 square meters of land to produce 1kg of cow. It takes less than 1 square meter to produce 1kg of mushrooms.”⁷ That’s a significant difference! In the production of Mylo, our mycelium growing partner, Mycelium Materials Europe (MME), takes advantage of that same efficiency of space by using a vertical agriculture system similar to that employed in growing mushrooms.
A direct comparison between mushrooms and cattle does not reflect the true difference between leather and Mylo – remember that hides, which are processed into leather, are just one of the products from the cattle industry. However, the efficiency of mushroom cultivation gives us confidence in its ability to produce sustainable materials. Moreover, we use tools like Green Chemistry assessment and Life Cycle Assessment to understand potential impacts early in the design and development process. For example, our Life Cycle Assessment model indicates energy consumption as a major contributor to Mylo’s carbon footprint. Hence, Bolt Threads and our Mylo production partners are adopting renewable energy across production sites. Already, MME uses 100% renewable energy in their mycelium growing farm. We shared with the TED organization the Guarantees of Origin⁸ for that site, which are the official documents used in Europe to confirm renewable energy procurement.
Since Dan’s TED talk was filmed, our finishing partner, HELLER-LEDER, installed solar panels at their factory to generate its own electricity. More than half of the heat they need is covered by renewable energy sources via the local heating supply. In addition, the company has signed a contract to purchase 100% renewable energy in 2022 to make the rest of its total energy consumption climate neutral. Heller has consistently demonstrated its commitment to environmental and social responsibility. This includes the Leather Working Group Gold Rating, German Blue Angel certification, the European Union’s EMAS (EC) No 1221/2009 environmental management label, and ISO certifications including 14001 and TS 16949.
Finally, remember that climate change is not the only problem the leather and fashion industries face. Bolt Threads has rigorous programs in green chemistry to avoid highly hazardous substances, in social responsibility to maintain fair labor practices, and in supply chain engagement to improve traceability and visibility further back into the supply chain.
Leather tanning is an ancient technique tracing back thousands of years⁹, and it has developed into a massive industry today. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting Global Warming to 1.5℃ will require the whole economy to reduce GHG emissions by about 45% from the 2010 level by 2030, and to achieve net-zero by 2050. Considering the size of the cattle and leather industries, there is not much time to reach this goal. We believe that Mylo, along with an array of innovative solutions, will help turn the tide and be a part of the sustainable fashion future.
¹ 2020 data which include cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goat.
²This calculation assumes a 47 Gt CO2-eq annual global emissions, according to data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).
³According to US EPA, GHG emissions for the US in 2020 was about 5.2 Gt CO2-eq.
⁴Calculated from data provided by Our World in Data, whose original data is from UN FAO.
⁵More specifically, 1985-2018.
⁶For more information about this mechanism, go to two studies published in Science Advances and Nature Sustainability,
⁷In developing this claim, we reviewed 14 life cycle assessment (LCA) studies of cattle raising, and 5 LCA studies of mushroom production. Among the 14 cattle LCA studies, 7 reported land use impact, and we used the median value to indicate the land use impact of the cattle industry. However, among the 5 mushroom LCA studies, only 1 reported land use impact, which is about 0.37 square meters per kg of mushroom. To give a conservative estimate, we decided to make the “less than 1 square meter” claim.
⁸For further explanation of Guarantees of Origin, see: https://www.certiq.nl/guarantees-of-origin/
⁹New research is finding mycelium textiles dating back at least 100 years ago. Perhaps we’re just rediscovering a material from long ago?
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