Having seen the success of the Good Food Institute (GFI) when it comes to accelerating plant-based foods, Stephanie Downs and Nicole Rawling saw an opportunity to affect change in an industry virtually nobody was talking about: materials. With their brilliant backgrounds, Nicole having set up all GFI's international programs, as well as Stephanie's experience as an entrepreneur, the pair have set up an ecosystem for the industry, Material Innovation Initiative, to bring together scientists, entrepreneurs, brands and investors, transforming textiles as we know them today. We spoke to the pair about a variety of topics, spanning from the history of vegan innovation in the space, to the factors they look at when evaluating startups, and the interwoven complexity of sustainability. We also spoke about the support from large brands and the huge, untapped potential that lies in material entrepreneurship, as well as push-backs from the animal industry when it comes to labelling terms such as 'leather' and what this could mean for the future marketing of next-gen materials entering the space.
With both Stephanie and Nicole having backgrounds in the plant-based food space, we asked them why they chose to focus on materials and how the idea to pursue change in that area came about.
Nicole: 'As a lot of your listeners would understand, there's been huge growth in that area and there's a lot of players in that space right now. Stephanie and I both saw how successful the GFI programming was in creating this entire new industry and there really wasn't anyone working in materials.'
Nicole: 'We saw this as a huge opportunity for us to also affect change using effective programs, but in an area that there was virtually no one else.'
However, despite there not being an effective program in cruelty-free and sustainable materials, vegan innovation in the space has been taking place for decades.
Stephanie: 'We've seen a lot of vegan innovation in materials for decades, which is interesting. But they're not always equated to the most sustainable or the highest quality - which have been the biggest challenges.'
To put things in perspective, to show just how complex textiles are
Stephanie: 'You have the visual, you have the hand feel, even the smell and then it gets really deep when you start looking at the performance of these fibres. They have to hold up but then they also have to be biodegradable and waterproof, fire-retardant. There are all kinds of tests that these materials have to meet.'
One aspect, sustainability, has become critical. But who is driving this change? Is it driven by end consumers, or by the companies themselves?
Nicole: 'I think it's a mix of both. Obviously the industries need to give the customers what they want, and we are seeing customers really wanting more of both sustainable and animal-free materials.'
Nicole then went on to talk about an interesting study they conducted on US consumers a year ago, with the results they found being pretty surprising.
Nicole: '55% would prefer purchasing a leather alternative to traditional leather, and it wasn't just gen z. It was people across all ages, demographics, social backgrounds. And out of those 47% would switch due to concerns over animal welfare, with 27% switching over concerns for the environment.'
I know especially amongst my friends, the effects of statistics surrounding fast fashion and the negative environmental impacts of current materials being used by brands has had a huge impact on our consumer choices. And despite thinking I knew quite a lot already, when I was doing my research for this week's episode, the categories that were the worst, environmentally, still shocked me.
Nicole: 'Out of the top 5 worse materials for the environment, 4 of them come from animal-based sources. Silk is rated as the worst, alpaca fabric is second, leather from cows is third, cotton is fourth and then wool is fifth.'
Silk?! Who would have thought. If you think about it, it makes sense. So many resources need to go into raising those animals, feeding them, growing them, before they are actually used and transformed into an end product.
Another topic we wanted to delve deeper into is how leather stacks up against leather alternatives, with some groups arguing that leather is a natural and biodegradable source therefore it is more sustainable to purchase.
Stephanie: 'Certainly, the leather industry sells it from that perspective. But it's been interesting to learn that through the processing of tanning, we're essentially taking something that would naturally rot and be biodegradable in nature, and through the intense application of chemicals, are turning it into something that, will biodegrade at some point, but will take hundreds of years.'
Stephanie: 'When they take the skin through the processing, they essentially strip out everything apart form the collagen, and they then take that through the tanning process. They even then add the colouring, and do cross-linking, so by the time they're done with it, it's not a natural fibre anymore, and people don't really think about that.'
Also the good news is that innovation doesn't just stop and start with completely new materials. There is being a lot of work done to make PU leather more sustainable, one way being to increase how much of the product is bio-based.
Nicole: 'That to us is the exciting thing about innovation - that companies really are trying to improve.'
Recognising that it's also a step-by-step process, where 70% petroleum based is better than 100%, and we need to encourage these changes so that we can continue to brainstorm and improve on these products in the future. In terms of evaluating a material's sustainability?
Nicole: 'When we're looking at the environmental impact of any materials, we're looking at a number of different factors. Water use, chemical use, land use, emissions and then end of life (biodegradable, recyclable or compostable).'
Do you prioritise one factor over another?
Stephanie: 'Nicole and I have had many brainstorms over this. 'All of the different materials are at different stages in their life cycles.'
Stephanie: 'If we're looking at PU leathers, they're doing great on performance, on price, on scalability, but they're not hitting the mark on sustainability. But if we look at some of the plant-based leathers, they're getting there on performance and some are hitting the marks better than others, but they're not scalable.'
Stephanie: 'Then you look at a solution like wools, or exotic skins and there's just nothing. Not even the vegan alternatives meet the mark of what industry is looking for.'
Stephanie: 'We try to look at where the most animals are impacted and where's the industry really ready.'
It seems that a lot of people are taking up the challenge, and bringing new ideas into the space, with a number of new startups and technologies showing promise.
Nicole: 'The ones we're very excited about are the ones using precision fermentation and cultivation. Precision fermentation is when you take the DNA of a specific protein, inserting it into a bacteria and having that bacteria grow that specific protein.'
Nicole: 'Cultivation is when we're taking animal skin cells, directly from an animal, and growing them in a bio-reactor using cell culture media. And this is similar to the food industry.'
Nicole: 'Both will grow leather, so they will almost be a one-to-one replacement for what exists in the market right now. But without all of the environmental impact that you get from the growth of the animal.'
For specific startups to look out for, you can head to materialinnovation.org to find out more.
As well as gaining support from the end consumers, it seems as though the fashion industry is also on board.
Stephanie: 'They've been very supportive.'
Stephanie: 'We had a meeting with 40 different major global brands, the biggest players from H&M to luxury brands to performance brands like Nike and every single one of them is aggressively looking for more materials.'
Stephanie: 'That's why we really want to encourage other entrepreneurs to get into this space because the opportunity is enormous and these brands are actively looking for companies to bring them solutions.'
For new companies that are looking to come on board with MII, the practical day-to-day actions span from
Nicole: 'Identifying the biggest opportunities. Looking at where we think there needs to be more focus, both in scientific development as well as the creation of new companies.'
to working with a number of entrepreneur companies and incubators, as well as connecting companies with investors, majority of which have been brought over by Nicole and Stephanie from the plant-based food space.
They also help quantify and provide numbers for brands through doing Life Cycle Analysis for their products, assessing the environmental impact so that brands can move away from using general terms such as 'sustainable' and leverage their marketing to large retail stores.
But there have also been some challenges, including a potential pushback on labelling, similar to what's been experienced in the food industry where vegan products have been criticised for using meat and dairy terms. Despite brands being on board, is there a challenge posed by the suppliers of animal-based materials?
Nicole: 'In Italy, earlier this year, they banned the term leather for any material that doesn't come from an animal. And that is a big deal.'
Nicole: 'The basis we think is the same argument. Consumers are not confused. When you say plant-based leather, cultivated or pineapple leather, consumers know that that does not come from an animal.'
Which begs the question if we should be creating new trademarked terms, moving away from 'alternatives' and towards a new language that is inherent with change.
Stephanie: 'That sometimes can take a serious amount of marketing dollars, to re-create those terms in the consumers mind. But it's definitely something we want to do some research around.'
An example of this is in the automotive industry, with companies moving towards using synthetic leathers without having those conversations with the consumer, instead just calling them performance fibres, or performance interiors.
Stephanie: 'The great thing about this industry, is that consumers can try things out before they buy. In the food space, it may not be a huge financial commitment but you usually have to purchase something. Whereas here they can sit in the chair, they can carry the bag, feel it with their hands.'
This being said, if you're like us and passionate about these issues, it can be quite overwhelming devising an action plan, or getting started and dipping your toes in the water.
If you're a scientist or an entrepreneur and you think you have an idea, feel free to get in touch with Nicole and Stephanie through materialinnovation.org, or reach out @materialinnovation on Instagram. Otherwise, if you're a consumer, despite there not being a large number of products on the market right now, it's still important to vote with your dollar and make purchases that align with your values. In the case of choosing between PU leather and normal leather, they recommend to still go with the alternative, claiming that it is, at the end of the day the more sustainable and animal-friendly choice.
We hope you enjoyed this week's episode, have a great day and don't forget to #biteforwhatsright!