As the fashion industry prepares to move into a post-pandemic 'new normal' - many of its past practices are being called into question. One of them is the use of animal skins.
After cases of COVID-19 tore through mink farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Spain, it was clearer than ever that the use of animals for clothing is a bad fit for the conscious world of fashion that the industry wishes to look toward as we emerge from lockdown.
And if brands want their ethical endeavors to be taken seriously, they need to consider material choices – a Kering report shows that 72 percent of a brand's environmental impact is tied to their choice of raw materials.
Material Innovation Initiative
This is exactly where new nonprofit Material Innovation Initiative (MII), based in San Francisco, focuses its efforts.
Founded by serial entrepreneur Stephanie Downs and lawyer Nicole Rawling, the organization brings together scientists, entrepreneurs, retailers, and consumers to support and promote the development and use of eco-friendly non-animal materials – both in fashion and other industries.
Both entrepreneurs have a background in the plant-based food movement: Nicole Rawling managed the international department for the future-food startup The Good Food Institute, while Stephanie Downs ran an Indian vegan meat company named Good Dot.
But as vegan food continues to gain ground, the entrepreneurs have turned their attention to an area where more knowledge and more promotion is desperately needed: material production.
'Sparking real changes'
"As veterans of the plant-based foods movement, we know just how vital nonprofit groups are to sparking real changes within an industry," says Rawling.
"We saw that consumer demand for non-animal-based materials was strong and that innovators were developing promising materials, but there was no one on the scene to create a unified movement to make these products real marketplace contenders."
MII recognizes that today's use of animal-based fabrics is damaging our planet: the use of materials such as wool and leather are connected to resource depletion, climate change, soil and air pollution, and many other issues that our planet is currently facing.
But MII also knows that replacing these with plastic-derived synthetics isn't the answer. This is why their core expertise lies in materials that are either plant-based, like mycelium (which is the basis for mushroom leather) or biofabricated - like leather grown in a laboratory.
"It's encouraging how interested brands are in embracing next-gen materials," continues Rawling.
"We work with them to assess what the industry needs are for quality, sustainability, and price. Then we can use that information to network with innovators, investors, and suppliers to actually bring products to market."
Addressing both animal welfare concerns and environmental issues, MII offers a directory of innovators who work within the realm of vegan materials: from wine and pineapple leather to synthetic silk and bio-based fur, the variety of sustainable, natural, cruelty-free materials has never been greater – and with the help of MII's expertise, these materials will continue to gain ground with both brands and consumers.
And the future looks bright. "We're building a strong team and hoping to add a material scientist to our ranks this year," concludes Rawling.
"Another priority is outreach to universities and academics to encourage more tech development."
In a time when materials and their products are at the center of the fashion conversation, MII is bringing much-needed innovation to the table by offering industries the sustainable solution they need – and naturally, it's vegan.