What does it mean to be beautiful on planet Earth in 2020? In search of clear skin, a mellow demeanor, the perfect eyebrows, and a high vibe, what are we reckoning with? From sheet masks to disposable salon sandals to plastic lining in the shipping of even eco-friendly materials, waste permeates the beauty industry in ways that can no longer be overlooked. According to the United Nations, half of all plastic is designed to be used only once, and environmental scientists are suggesting that plastics will serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era, despite becoming ubiquitous only within the past hundred years. It’s not cute that Styrofoam takes up an estimated 30% of space in landfills and lingers for about 500 years, that trash floats in the oceans, and that microplastics exist in our food supply. With packaging accounting for 40% of plastic usage, beauty brands are turning to a natural solution: mushroom mycelium.
“Mycelium is the root structure of mushrooms,” explains Loney Abrams, florist, artist, and co-owner of Wretched Flowers. “Mycelium networks can take on any form and once they colonize a form, it’s incredibly durable, insulating, and flame resistant”—properties which make mushrooms an ideal substitute for Styrofoam and plastic. Abrams and her partner, Johnny Stanish, have considered mycelium in a variety of settings. It was the material that made up their Bondage vases (also designed in special colors for a collaboration with the sustainable clothing brand Eden), which function conjunctly as vessels and shipping containers. Stanish and Abrams dream of a day when mycelium can replace Styrofoam in the shipping of large pieces of art, and make the case that mycelium could benefit myriad industries, from art and flowers to beauty. Wretched Flowers sources from and is inspired by Ecovative Design, the company that has been growing mycelium in the U.S., Europe, and New Zealand to combat single-use plastics since 2007.
“Mushrooms are nature’s recycling system,” explains Gavin McIntyre, cofounder of Ecovative Design. “They’re decomposers. Mycelium grows really quickly, and for the industrial process, [we’re able to grow it] in days.” Many compostable products, such as the compostable cups that you see at coffee shops, are made from polylactic acid (PLA), a corn sugar fermented by bacteria, and are only industrially compostable. Mycelium products biodegrade within a month in a home compost, meaning they don’t need to be sent out to a facility. I asked McIntyre about composting in New York City, where the mayor has recently suspended the composting program, and he pointed out that you could technically cut up the packaging and put it out next to a tree or—though he doesn’t recommend this—a local body of water, as the product is safely marine compostable and used to protect scientific buoys in oceans around the world by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mycelium acts like a glue and is grown into molds (no pun intended) fitting any shape, from packaging inserts to sculpture to beauty applicators. Ecovative Design grows mycelium beauty and skin-care products, including eye masks, sheet masks, and makeup wedges. They are also partnering with beauty, fashion, art, and technology brands to customize packaging.
One such brand is Hudson Hemp, a farm and CBD company built on land owned by Abby Rockefeller and her family in the Catskill mountains. I spoke with cofounder Melany Dobson about how and why she decided to integrate mycelium packaging into Hudson Hemp’s CBD line, Treaty. Dobson’s team grows hemp as part of a dynamic crop rotation alongside grains that supply flour to local bakeries, livestock feed for dairy farms, and rye and hops for brewers and distillers. Part of the mission of Hudson Hemp is to develop soil that relies on nutrients that come from the farm itself; since mycelium goes hand in hand with soil health, it was already in mind. “I learned about Ecovative through Seed—a probiotic brand that has used Ecovative since 2018 in their original packaging—and decided to go for it,” Dobson says. This ethos of open-source sharing when it comes to sustainability is one that is inevitably moving the industry forward. Since its launch, all Hudson Hemp CBD has been shipped in custom Ecovative packaging.
How does change happen in the beauty industry? I think about my own brand, Masha Tea, and how the transition to more thoughtful packaging finally happened when I saw an Instagram post by Nu Swim (which, incidentally, fills my bathing suit collection with perfect fits made from regenerated ocean waste) about the biodegradable packaging company Ecoenclose. The fact of the matter is, companies are always looking to one another to see how they can improve. On a larger scale, as Dobson notes, “Multinational companies [look to] small brands once they get attention. It helps set trends. If Treaty uses Ecovative, L’Oréal starts thinking about it too.”
This idea was at the heart of my conversation with Rodrigo Garcia Alvarez, founder of Amen, a vegan line of candles produced in the historic fragrance capital of Grasse, France. “The new luxury is when things are done by ethical and sustainability standards and not just by how things look,” he says. Amen candles, which are sold at Dover Street Market, 10 Corso Como, and The Conservatory, are all shipped in mycelium grown in Amsterdam. In fact, Garcia Alvarez sees mycelium as the future of luxury, with the goal of inspiring 10 major brands to incorporate mushroom materials, then 100, and eventually a world in which mycelium can “reach the economics of scale and efficient cost,” making mushrooms more accessible in the way that plastics are today.
Eyes are on mushrooms as the future of our reckoning with waste. “Why is CBD a beauty product?” I asked Dobson toward the end of our conversation about Hudson Hemp. “Because it brings the inner-outer beauty conversation full circle,” she answered. “If you’re feeling how you need to feel in the moment you’re in, that is beautiful.” As beauty brands consider how best to meet the needs of the earth alongside those of their consumers, mycelium reminds us that there are exciting alternatives to a wasteful existence.