Consumers are demanding better and more sustainable products and brands and retailers are eager to meet this demand. Simultaneously, innovators are working on new technology to serve consumers and brands with improved materials. The Material Innovation Initiative is one organisation that is working with innovators to help fast-track green initiatives.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with Nicole Rawling, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Material Innovation Initiative.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Please summarise your role and what you specialise in?
Nicole Rawling (NR): I am a co-founder and the executive director of the Material Innovation Initiative, a non-profit that accelerates the development of high performance sustainable and animal-free materials for the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries. MII partners with brands, scientists, start-ups, and retailers to bring these critical innovations to market.
LG: Before going into your current role, what did you used to do?
NR: I used to be the director of international engagement at The Good Food Institute. GFI is a non-profit with a very similar goal and programs as the Material Innovation Initiative but for the plant-based foods industry. I developed and ran all of GFI’s international programs including setting up and managing our offices in Brazil. China, Europe, India, and Israel.
LG: What current opportunities are there for next-generation materials?
NR: One of the most exciting things about my work is the amount of opportunity for next-gen materials! Although there are a lot of companies producing petroleum-based synthetic materials, we do not encourage industry to use these products. Although animal-free, they are not environmentally friendly. There are only a few dozen plant based or lab grown leathers and a handful or less each of silk, wool, down, fur, and exotic skins. A few leaders in the field have proved it is possible to make these materials out of sustainable and animal-free sources but they are just the beginning. When I started my work on plant-based foods, there was similarly only a few dozen companies. Within three years, the market ballooned over 1000%. By bringing together scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and brands to work on these new materials and get them to market, we can see the same growth in the materials industry.
LG: Scientists suggest that degraded habitats may encourage more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases, as pathogens spread easily to livestock and humans. So, do you think in future you will find more companies take advantage of next-generation materials to avoid using animal-based ones?
NR: This new pandemic is definitely a wake-up call. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, most pandemics including the recent Covid-19, SARS, and H1N1, jump from animal species to humans. On top of all of the negative environmental impacts from using animals for food and materials, we have a lot of reasons to move towards animal-free and more sustainable alternatives.
LG: What is the biggest challenge Material Innovation Initiative?
NR: We have been pleasantly surprised at how many brands are interested in moving away from animal-based materials towards more sustainable alternatives. Even top brands, known for their high-quality leather and silk goods, were putting money into exploring these alternative materials. The biggest challenge right now is the economic downturn in the economy. How will the brands respond? Will they take this opportunity to invest in more sustainable materials which will help alleviate future pandemics and environmental catastrophes? Or will they cut down on their innovation and sustainability departments and continue business as normal. We hope they will focus on becoming more sustainable as consumers are definitely moving in that direction.
LG: How do you assuage any fears that the consumers might have over lab-based innovations?
NR: We actually haven’t seen significant consumer concern over lab-based innovations. In a survey of American consumers conducted in September last year, 76.22% of consumers said they were “likely to purchase real leather grown from animal cells in a factory.” The reasons they gave were their concerns over leather’s impact on the environment and animal cruelty. Leather is the worst material for the environment out of all materials used in the fashion industry, and leather grown in a lab has a significant reduction in land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of biodiversity. We also faced the same issue in the food industry where people were concerned about food made in a lab. We used to joke that that is where most food comes from! Cheerios don’t grow on trees.
LG: What one thing would you like the next-gen materials industry to do better and why?
NR: All of the entrepreneurs and scientists we have met with understand the significant reduction in environmental impact from switching from animal-based materials to plant-based or lab-grown materials. To them, it is a given. This is why they are working on these new materials. Not everyone in the fashion industry understands these significant benefits though. There are also no reliable life cycle analyses comparing these next-gen materials with their standard animal-based counterparts. MII is currently looking for funding to conduct these critical LCAs but, until then, we highly recommend that the materials companies invest in LCA lights to show their reduced environmental impact.
LG: What’s your favourite bio-based/sustainable product?
NR: Oh, you know I can’t choose just one! We are featuring a number of these companies through our Instagram page so please follow us at https://www.instagram.com/materialinnovation/.