What’s Next For The Vegan Materials Industry?
Vegan materials could experience major growth in the coming years, according to a recent report on the industry by the non-profit Material Innovation Institute (MII). Just as plant-based and cultured meat products have made huge strides, MII hopes that more investment and innovation could help replace animal-based materials such as leather, silk, wool, down, and fur with versions derived from plant matter, recycled materials, or cultured animal cells.
Reducing the use of materials derived from animals can more significantly benefit animal welfare than you might think. Contrary to the common misconception that animal-based materials are simply a byproduct of animals raised for food, materials are often one of the most profitable animal products. This means that reducing the consumption of animal-based materials could markedly decrease animal suffering.
Replacing animal-based materials with “next-gen” materials also carries a host of other benefits. Raw materials make up a significant portion of leading brands’ environmental footprints. Reducing the use of animal-based materials can reduce the emergence and spread of disease (for example, millions of farmed mink were killed in 2020 to stop the spread of a Covid-19 variant). MII hopes that next-gen materials could eventually have direct benefits for consumers, too, by having higher performance and lower maintenance than animal-based equivalents.
The report discusses three primary forces driving the growth of next-gen materials. First, advances in material science are creating new products that could be more appealing to mainstream consumers. For example, recent advances have used fermentation to create the proteins and biopolymers that form the basis of next-gen materials. Examples include Spiber, a company working in spider silk alternatives, and Bolt Threads, which uses mycelium and fermentation to create next-gen leather and silk. Tissue engineering that uses the same technology as cultured beef and chicken is being used by startups like VitroLabs to create lab-grown, cruelty-free, leather.
Second, changing consumer preferences may incentivize companies to reduce animal product use. 55% of U.S. consumers in a recent survey reported desiring an alternative to animal leather, with consumers citing not only altruistic benefits to animals and the environment, but also a desire for lower cost and maintenance. Consumers are also increasingly concerned about sustainability: In a 2020 survey in the U.K. and Germany, 67% of respondents considered the use of sustainable materials an important purchasing factor. As a result, 38 out of 40 leading fashion brands are “actively searching for next-gen materials,” according to MII.
Finally, regulatory trends have created a favorable environment for the development of improved animal material alternatives. Sustainability objectives from governments and investors encourage the development and use of these environmentally-friendly materials. There are fewer regulatory barriers for new materials than for food products, though labeling restrictions (such as a 2020 prohibition in Italy for using the term “leather” for “materials that do not have an animal origin”) are an emerging concern.
Against this backdrop, the Material Innovation Initiative (MII) sees a large potential for both animal welfare and investors. “[Investors] who have missed the boat are now looking for the next Beyond Meat,” writes Nicole Rawling, MII’s co-founder and CEO, in the report. Currently, 74 companies are developing improved next-gen materials, and investors are pouring money into the growing industry — MII’s estimate of $504 million invested in 2020 is nearly as much as the previous four years combined.
The report lists several examples of next-gen material partnerships, such as Adidas’s collaboration with AMSilk to create an alternative silk shoe and Athleta’s partnership with Aquafil to produce sportswear made with recycled fishing nets. Ideally, the sustainability commitments that existing fashion brands have made will encourage more use of these products. To be effective, next-gen materials must have the durability, finishes, and textures that consumers want — but if successful, these materials could be a boon to animal welfare.