Moving The Needle With Material Innovation
“I could never give up cheese.”
If you’ve ever had a discussion about animal agriculture and veganism – particularly in the United States – you’ve probably heard this sentence. The sentence “I could never give up leather” is considerably less common. While people tend to form their individual and cultural identities around their diet, we rarely do the same with the materials used to make our shoes, jackets, or car seats. You probably don’t know exactly what fibers make up the shirt you’re currently wearing. But I bet you would be delighted if you discovered that your shirt was animal-free, eco-friendly, and made with the leading-edge technology. In contrast, finding out your food was made with leading-edge technology might evoke some reflexive skepticism.
This openness to embrace innovative, animal-free materials was part of the reason why my co-founder and I, Stephanie Downs, created the Material Innovation Initiative (MII) in late 2019. Stephanie and I had witnessed and played a role in the rapid expansion of meat alternatives over the past few years, she as a plant-based meat startup founder, and I as the Director of International Engagement for the Good Food Institute. The sea-change for meat alternatives was driven by coordinated efforts to support technological development, investment, and consumer adoption. We believed then, as we do now, that the same sort of ecosystem-building and innovation is necessary for the materials industry.
The scope of the materials industry is colossal, and the harm it causes is just as great. Nearly 4 billion animals are used for their skin, hair, or feathers every year, and around a trillion caterpillars are boiled alive every year for their silk cocoons*. In the process of turning animals into materials, environmental harm and human rights abuses are rampant. The resulting materials are not “byproducts” of the meat industry, but instead offer a significant profit incentive for the continuation of factory farming. Leather is the second most profitable product of a cow, and in the case of fur, silk, and exotic skins, the animal material itself is the most profitable product.
Transforming the materials industry – an end in and of itself – could also be a key piece of transforming the food supply. The profit margins for animal agriculture are so small that a disruption in the price of leather could have a ripple effect throughout the beef industry, significantly increasing price and lowering demand. A recent report from RethinkX predicts that a reduction in demand for cow products catalyzed by innovative replacements for meat, milk, leather, and collagen could drive the U.S. cattle industry to bankruptcy before 2030. Without the profits from animal skins, farmers would have to charge more for meat, thus making plant-based and cultivated meat more attractive to consumers and opening the door for other animal product alternatives such as gelatin produced through precision fermentation.
“The cow – one of the oldest, largest, and most inefficient food production systems in the world – is now experiencing its final disruption. The remaining parts of the cow with any significant value – namely meat and milk, but also leather and collagen – are being replaced by superior technologies, products, and services, all enabled by the continued engineering by humans of micro-organisms.”
–RethinkX: Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020–2030
Because of the immediate and downstream effects of replacing animal-based materials, we see it as one of the most impactful interventions of our time. But as it stands, the materials industry is facing an innovation crisis. Alternatives to animal-based materials exist, but they rarely come close to competing with conventional materials on a number of performance-related factors, and unfortunately, many replacements are petroleum-based, highly polluting, and non-biodegradable. Given what we know about the connections between climate change, plastic pollution, and animal health, replacing leather with petroleum-based plastics is hardly a long-term solution.
But opportunities to create better alternatives abound. Consumers aren’t just open to change, they’re actively demanding it, and brands are eager to meet that demand. According to Nielsen, nearly half of U.S. consumers say they would probably or definitely change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. These consumers are backing their values with their dollars, spending $128.5 billion on sustainable fast-moving consumer goods in 2018. And since 2014, sustainable product sales have grown with a compound average growth rate four times higher than conventional products. Given that materials make up the majority of a brand’s environmental impact, meeting demand for sustainable products has to start there.
Unlike in the highly consolidated meatpacking industry, most fashion, automotive, and homegoods companies only operate at the end of the supply chain, and therefore have little to no attachment to maintaining animal sourcing. In fact, doing so is often viewed as a liability. A biological supply chain is inherently vulnerable, as was recently evidenced when millions of mink in Danish fur farms were culled to contain the spread of a mutated COVID-19 virus. The reputational risks of producing environmentally damaging products – and sometimes through the use of indentured servitude and child labor – are huge and growing. Policies to protect human rights and the environment represent a risk for companies that produce animal-derived materials. The reasons to change are piling up, but the lack of scaled, high-performance, market-ready solutions is a significant barrier. This reality is playing out on the ground: In my meetings with 40 brands over the past year, every single one was actively looking for replacements for animal-based materials. The biggest challenge was that these replacements simply do not exist.
Bridging this gap between supply and demand represents a massive opportunity. The materials market is primed for a shift toward sustainability, and we have the opportunity to act now and ensure that the future of materials leaves behind the animal suffering of its past. To do so, we need to align all key players in the ecosystem and support innovation in materials science. To this end, MII is connecting researchers, investors, innovators, and brands to accelerate the rate of change in the materials industry while investigating novel sourcing and production methods for next-generation materials. We believe that this work not only removes a critical profit-driver for factory farming, it also provides a backdoor into conversations about the role of animals in our economy more generally. By starting with a less-loaded conversation about the clothes on our backs, people may become more willing to discuss the food on our plates. With both cultural and technological barriers removed, it will be that much easier to walk down the road toward a humane future.
*Researchers are still investigating invertebrate sentience and capacity for suffering. Rethink Priorities has compiled a database on the available findings, which can be viewed here. What is not speculative is the suffering of the humans involved in silk production. Many investigations have revealed horrific working conditions, indentured servitude, and child labor across the silk production proccess. Additionally, the ultimate suffering associated with the environmental damage of silk production is difficult to quantify but almost certainly significant.
Technologies For Material Innovation
In this category, material is made via mechanical and/or chemical means. This technology is used to make a large number of next-gen materials. Innovators use inputs ranging from fruit and fungi to leaves and bark to create materials for leather, wool, down, and other applications.
In this category, material is made primarily of mycelium, the ‘roots’ of mushrooms, which are grown on plant waste. There are many unexplored opportunities in mycelium processing that could be applied to make novel materials. This technology is also used in packaging, in building materials, and in the food industry.
In this category, microorganisms are grown in a culture medium to produce a biomaterial / biopolymer. Innovators use various combinations of microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, yeast) and types of culture medium to create materials with different properties.
In this category, the DNA code to create a specific protein (e.g., spider silk, collagen) is inserted into bacteria or yeast. The bacteria or yeast then consume plant wastes to produce the desired protein. This process is also called recombinant DNA technology and is used to make insulin, vaccines, and rennet, among many other biotech products.
Cell cultivation involves taking skin cells from an animal, allowing those cells to grow and divide in a medium that provides the necessary nutrients, and then seeding the cells onto a scaffolding for further growth. Cultivating skin cells in this way produces actual leather, but without the cow.