It is impossible to have missed the “veggie burger Renaissance” of the past few years. A decade ago, you would have had to travel to the most neglected corner of the grocery store to find a meat alternative, only to discover that a frozen mush of beans and carrots was the only thing on offer. Today, you can get an Impossible or Beyond Burger that smells, looks, and tastes positively bovine at any number of restaurants and fast food joints. In some ways, today’s options for sustainable fashion are where meat alternatives were years ago: Sustainable style is hard to find, more expensive than conventional options, and often doesn’t stack up to the sensory and performance stats of its mainstream counterparts. So what can the fashion industry learn from the success of meat alternatives in the food industry?
When the easy option becomes the more sustainable option, consumers will gladly adopt it
A good bit, it would seem. For starters, plant-based meat didn’t rise in popularity because people suddenly became more concerned about the planet, their diets, or farm animals. People started eating more of it because it became affordable and accessible, and most importantly, because it actually started tasting good. All of the marketing campaigns in the world can’t change consumer purchasing habits if there are no viable options to switch to. Even consumers who consider themselves champions of the environment would be hard-pressed to find a durable, affordable, and eco-friendly tennis shoe to help them achieve their New Year’s resolutions. However, when the easy option becomes the more sustainable option, consumers will gladly adopt it. Already, consumer research shows that more than half of consumers want to purchase leather alternatives because of their concern over leather production’s impact on animals and the environment. But there are virtually no suitable animal-free and eco-friendly leather alternatives available to the average consumer.
As the rapid rise of meat alternatives demonstrates, it doesn’t have to take decades to move sustainable fashion from the fringes to the mainstream. What it will take is targeted R&D efforts and strategic coordination among startups, scientists, investors, brands, and retailers. Innovators are forging ahead using novel material inputs and processing technologies to create the next generation of sustainable materials. Just as innovative startups in food endeavored to make meat with cows redundant, innovators in fashion are working to do the same with resource-intensive and polluting materials like leather. Some startups, like MycoWorks and Bolt Threads, are harnessing the unique properties of mycelium to create leather alternatives. Others like Natural Fiber Welding are engineering new mechanical processing techniques, with impressive results. Still others like VitroLabs are using novel biotech solutions to grow actual bovine leather without ever having to raise, slaughter, and process a cow.
Today’s work lies in scaling so that sustainable solution can transform the fashion industry from the inside out
Today’s work lies in taking these sustainable solutions and scaling them, so that they can transform the fashion industry from the inside out, creating profits while protecting the planet. Because the next-gen material space is so nascent, there is still plenty of space for small investors to get in before the fashion-industry equivalent of Beyond Meat’s record-breaking IPO, and still plenty of space for entrepreneurs to enter the fray and quickly rise to prominence. In the same way that Tyson, one of the largest meat processors in the world, invested in Beyond Meat, we need the biggest names in fashion to throw their support behind material innovators. To date, Ralph Lauren is the only major brand to have invested in a next-gen material company (Ralph Lauren led a $13M round in Natural Fiber Welding in 2020). Other leading names like Stella McCartney, Lululemon, Adidas, and Kering have forged partnerships with innovators, though the nature of these partnerships is not public. Additional partnerships are happening entirely behind the scenes, giving industry insiders cause to believe that the next-gen materials sector could go from zero to sixty within the next one-to-three years. Any brands who miss out on these early opportunities are missing out on the chance to stake their claim in the materials industry of the future and do good by the planet in the process.
Reviewing the plant-based meat playbook can help flip the script for sustainable fashion. At present, many in the industry treat sustainability as a costly side-project, albeit a desirable one, and don’t treat it as core to their future success. It’s as though they are voicing support for the concept of plant-based options without investing in the R&D to make the next Impossible Burger. Once the bulk of the fashion industry, along with the leading minds in materials science, design, and engineering, recognize that next-gen materials are where the biggest gains lie, a total market transformation is on the menu.
Written by Emily Byrd who has consulted with some of the leading startups, venture capital groups, and nonprofits in animal-free food technology, and is the current Director of Communications for the Material Innovation Initiative (MII). MII is a nonprofit that accelerates the development of high-performance, more sustainable materials for the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries. Learn more at materialinnovation.org.
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