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Talking mycelium

When Simon Constantine started talking the power of mushrooms at a Lush conference in Amsterdam eyebrows were (naturally) raised ... but since then, more and more business thinkers have started to share his enthusiasm for the genius way the mycelium networks that support the growth of fungi can inspire a business model based on the same kind of natural collaborations.

A few years ago, Lush had a party in Amsterdam. All our European shop managers and teams got together for a couple of days to celebrate before ploughing headlong into the tumult of Xmas trading. At the time, I had been reading and watching a lot about Paul Stamets, the world-renowned mycologist, whose inspirational work into the study of fungi has thrown up more than one incredible discovery...

Made most popular through his TED talk Six ways mushrooms can save the world, he acts as planetary PR for mushrooms and the fungal hyphae networks that fruit them, known as mycelium. I thought it would be apt, in Amsterdam, to give a talk on the similarities of mycelium structure to that of how Lush organises itself. There was a mixed response, and given the city where I’d chosen to deliver my mycelium speech, I think people made an obvious assumption that I had been enjoying myself too much in the local cafés.

I should point out I am a mushroom fan, not an expert. On a recent foraging session with my family it was quite clear my children had better identification skills than I did. However, my enthusiasm for the thin tendrils of the underground mycelium that you’ll see if you turn over a fallen log or dig gently down into forest soil ... well, that doesn’t seem to have been dampened by my lack of expertise.

I find it incredible that an entire world lies beneath our feet, and that stems from the same evolutionary branch of life that gave rise to animals, rather than plants, can form the largest living organisms on the planet. Yet it has only recently been studied in the sort of detail it deserves.

Work by foresters such as Dr Suzanne Simard study the benefit of these networks on trees and their offspring; discovering, for example, that in the temperate forests of British Columbia, trees form partnerships with fungi, trading in sugars and nutrients that enable the trees to feed their offspring and even other species in their locale, strengthening their own chances of survival in the interests of everyone. The underground mycelium pattern is likened to nature’s internet; connections, links and exchanges all happening invisibly but creating a thriving web of life. I take great comfort in this.

In my speech I wanted to disrupt the notion that business and individual endeavour has to be done in isolation. It’s often thought that competition is the ruling factor of commerce and success and we’ve looked to nature to confirm this – Dog-eat-dog, King of the Jungle etc. Rather, if you take a step back you will see the strength of collaboration that, even with self-interest as a part, must benefit everyone to survive. I also saw the similarities in the personal networks we create that support one another and how people ‘grow around’ issues and blocks if they can’t make those connections.

I was equally inspired when I met my friend Paul Yeboah of Ghana Permaculture Institute who had the ingenious plan to take waste sawdust for free, grow oyster mushrooms in it and sell these to local market. The business ‘mushroomed’ from there and he sells them across much of West Africa now.

In fact, I got so into the world of the mushrooms that for our third Gorilla perfume show, bleakly titled Death, Decay and Renewal. I even created a fragrance called Mycelium that had several fungal-smelling materials in. It never went on sale as it was probably too far fetched to imagine people wanting to smell of the rotting forest floor but it highlighted fungi as the forest’s recycler; eating up dead material to start afresh. It had the unintended benefit of attracting mushroom enthusiasts too although I left my dad to deal with them - as they shared their belief that Jesus was possibly a mushroom - which is something he still holds against me to this day!

Recently I felt somewhat vindicated when I read Tamsin Woolley-Barker draw similar parallels between companies and mycelium in her book, Teeming. At least I’m not completely alone in my thinking and those strange stares I drew in Amsterdam may possibly have been more to do with the free brownies at coffee break, rather than my speech?

Simon Constantine is the head of Ethical Buying and a perfumier at Lush.

The underground mycelium pattern is likened to Nature’s own internet; connections, links and exchanges all happening invisibly but creating a thriving web of life. I take great comfort in this.

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