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What KFC’s Vegan Nuggets Mean for Next-Gen Materials

Plant-based foods may be dominating grocery aisles and restaurant menus, but it’s animal-free, sustainable and high-performance alternatives to traditional fashion fibers that will leave consumers hungry for more, said Nicole Rawling, co-founder and CEO of the Material Innovation Institute, a California-based think tank that seeks to propel so-called “next-gen” materials into the mainstream.

But even some of the fervor she’s witnessed for the likes of mushroom-based or appleskin-derived leather has caught her off guard. In a survey the organization conducted with more than 500 U.S. adults last year, 55 percent of respondents said they preferred vegan leather to the real McCoy and 80 percent said they were “open” to purchasing a plant-based alternative. Urban China gave an even warmer reception, with 90 percent of 500 Chinese adults expressing a preference for next-gen leather and 70 percent reporting a “very” or “extremely” high likelihood of purchasing it.

“I don’t think consumers want to use animals if they don’t have to,” Rawling, who previously championed cultivated meat at the Good Food Institute, told Sourcing Journal. “I just had KFC’s vegan chicken nuggets the other day. If you can put something out there that tastes just as good, is reasonably priced and doesn’t have animals, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods’ meatless sausages, burgers and chicken, which have even non-vegans eating out of their hand, triggered an explosion of companies looking to capitalize on their success. Rawling isn’t just hoping that the momentum will extend to biomaterials for the apparel and footwear industry, she’s counting on it. By 2035, the Boston Consulting Compan expects 22 percent of all meat, seafood, eggs and dairy consumed around the world to originate from non-animal sources, up from 2 percent in 2020. Next-gen materials could experience an even sharper trajectory.

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Rawling said she believes that next-gen materials are roughly five years behind plant-based food but will grow much quicker. For one thing, she said, consumers aren’t as tied emotionally to what they wear versus what they eat, meaning that wildflower-based insulation, for instance, won’t be competing against nostalgic memories of Grandma’s brisket. “It’s not as if someone says, ‘Oh, I just can’t give up my leather’ the way some people say they can’t give up cheese, right?” she said.

There’s also the fact that people are more comfortable playing with innovation than ingesting it. “People are reluctant to have technology in their food,” Rawling said. “But we’re used to inviting technology into our homes, in our clothes, in our devices, in our cars.”

The commercial signs are already promising. MycoWorks just gobbled up an additional $125 million in funding to expand its mycelium-leather capabilities. Ralph Lauren and Natural Fiber Welding unveiled earlier this month the world’s first high-performance cotton fabric, made from virgin and recycled fibers, that is capable of going toe to toe with polyester and nylon. Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney are preparing to roll out styles made with Bolt Threads’ ersatz cowhide, known as Mylo, while Bestseller and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp. plan to do the same with Ecovative’s Forager Hides leather replacement. Gucci has developed its own plant-based leather using a blend of viscose and leather pulp, as has Hermès with mushroom cells. Even fast-fashion retailers like H&M are experimenting with faux leathers such as Desserto, made from cactus fronds, and Vegea, derived from grape waste.

With $1.3 billion invested between 2015 and May 2021 alone, it’s clear the field is “expanding rapidly” with plenty of “white-space” opportunities, particularly in the non-leather spaces—think wool, down, fur and exotic skins—to go around, Rawling said. And it’s not just the big stuff that has room for improvement; while additives, components, dyes and finishes are decidedly “less sexy,” transitioning them from fossil-fuel sources would be a gamechanger. “There’s just so much opportunity to do good and make money,” she said. “So I want to encourage everyone to pick the area where you have the expertise and you have the connections and you think you can make a difference.”

Everlane, Forager Hides, Lululemon, Modern Meadow, MycoWorks and Natural Fiber Welding are just some of the companies that will be speaking at the Material Innovation Initiative’s inaugural Virtual Material Innovation Conference, a two-day event that will take place May 18-19. The conference’s digital-only platform will not only provide space for interactive panels and exhibition booths, but it will also make it a snap for attendees to network effectively through public and private chat rooms and one-one video conferencing, Rawling said.

“We really believe in collaboration, and I think that bringing together all players in this ecosystem— scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, material companies, brands, manufacturers—is the best opportunity to advance the industry,” she said. “Having more sustainable and animal-free materials is becoming a shared passion for a lot of people in the industry. Connecting together is how new projects start.”

Rawling said she believes in progress, not perfection, and like any new innovation, next-gen materials will have their teething problems. (Some plant-based leathers have courted criticism for containing polyurethane and other petrochemical-derived ingredients.) Investors shouldn’t sweat any initial increases in cost, either, she said, pointing to fake meat, once an expensive novelty but now an affordable staple at Burger King and White Castle.

“What worked in the food industry is some materials became loss leaders,” she said. “So what that means is investors in the companies understood that they could go to market at a lower price and actually lose money in order to gain market share long term.”

One thing’s for sure is that disruption will happen, and fast. Concern over climate change is already putting pressure on the cattle industry, which in turn could impact the future price and volume of leather. Big Oil, whose derivatives go into the production of synthetic fibers, is increasingly under fire. The zeitgeist, too, can shift on a dime.

“Any investors in this space will remember the Beyond Meat IPO, where the stock went up 800 percent within three to four months,” Rawling said. “It was the biggest IPO in 2019 and made their investors a lot of money within a short period of time. And so the industry has to be prepared for that.”

To learn more about the Virtual Material Innovation Conference, visit www.materialinnovation.org/conference.