Material Innovation Initiative: Redefining Sustainable Materials

by | Jul 30, 2021 | Changemaker Of The Week

Each year, over 3.6 billion animals are killed, sheared, or plucked to supply leather, fur, wool, down, and other materials we rely on in several aspects of our lives. The consequences of these materials are dire, both on the planet and the animals they’re sourced from. While many activists have fought against these harmful practices, few have laid the foundation to create meaningful and lasting change. 

Stephanie Downs, a highly experienced entrepreneur, and Nicole Rawling, a lawyer with over 13 years of experience in the plant-based food industry, decided that arguing ethics wasn’t enough to save the planet. Combining their skillsets, the two women founded the Material Innovation Initiative, the first nonprofit of its kind to connect entrepreneurs and scientists with retailers and consumers to bridge the gap between those creating and those distributing next-gen materials. 

MII received their first seed grant from The Pollination Project, which allowed them to build a website and share their mission with the world. Their growing team is helping pioneer leather alternatives made from mushrooms, fermented flower petals, and mangos; silk alternatives made from orange fibers or algae; and a material made from milkweed that mimics the look and feel of goosedown, among many other exciting innovations.  

Although interest in sustainable materials has existed for years, few alternatives exist that are competitive with animal products in terms of price and performance. The Material Innovation Initiative’s goal is to connect the right people to create a solution that is comparable, if not better, to animal products, and build a world where “the sustainable option is the default one,” and animal products are replaced entirely by plant-based and lab-grown alternatives.   

“Consumers really do want these alternative materials that are better for the environment and do not kill animals,” CEO and Co-Founder Nicole Rawling said in an interview with Apparel News. “We’re not asking them to sacrifice. It’s not about giving up something that they love. It’s about having what they love but being more responsible about it.” 

The Material Innovation Initiative currently works with over 40 international fashion and automotive brands, with other major brands following suit and developing their own next-gen materials. Gucci, for example, recently announced the creation of its own line of next-gen leather. 

With a developing urgency to slow climate change and new technologies redefining our sense of normal, now is the perfect time to launch a revolution and create lasting changes in how we produce our materials. Studies show that 90% of Gen Z consumers believe that companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues, igniting the hope that a sustainable and thriving future is within reach if organizations like the Material Innovation Initiative continue creating meaningful change. 


Written by Ali Scheinfeld