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Why Material Innovators Should Look Past Plant-Based Leather

Leather made from mushroom roots. Silk derived from yeast. Fur produced from wood pulp. With innovative alternatives to traditional animal-based materials launching into the spotlight every day, it’s easy to assume that the $1.3 billion next-gen space might be getting too crowded for comfort.

But “white-space opportunities” in this brave new frontier still abound, according to a recent report from the Material Innovation Initiative, a California think tank, and The Mills Fabrica, a technology incubator based in Hong Kong. Consumers, it said, are clamoring for animal-free, sustainable, high-performance alternatives, yet the current marketplace is unable to meet the current demand, especially outside leather. Roughly two-thirds of current players in the next-gen materials industry are focusing on cowhide replacements, leaving wool, down, fur and exotic skins with “limited innovation efforts.”

Silk, fur, and exotic skin markets, in particular, will appeal to early-stage innovators, since high-value product targets could enable a “faster path to price parity” compared with commodity markets, the study said. Case in point: polyester yarn costs roughly a dollar per kilogram while raw silk averages at $55. Despite the lower production volume of conventional silk, wool, down, fur and exotic skins compared with leather, next-gen innovators can seize on the “great value” in these material subcategories.

“For material innovators who find themselves battling with achieving scale and price parity, why not target animal-derived materials that have higher unit costs and lower incumbent production volumes?” the report’s authors wrote. “These underserved product categories currently mean a lack of competition, which may be attractive to innovators and investors looking to enter the next-gen materials industry.”

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But finished materials aren’t the only components ripe for disruption. Innovations in inputs such as additives, coatings, finishes and dyes could also result in “more holistically sustainable” formulations with healthier implications for worker and consumer safety. One gamechanger for the next-gen leather industry and others would be a 100 percent bio-based polyurethane, since its fossil-fuel-derived counterpart is often used in binders or coatings to enhance performance and strength in textiles.

Materials Innovation Institute white space report
Roughly two-thirds of current players in the next-gen materials industry are focusing on cowhide replacements, leaving wool, down, fur and exotic skins with “limited innovation efforts.” Courtesy

Brands have already underscored the need for sustainable alternatives to traditional polyurethane. H&M, for instance, has pledged to use only “sustainable, for example, bio-based” polyurethane in its products by 2030. Reformation is also working with the Materials Innovation Institute to “push plastic-free leather alternatives forward.”

“We need bio-based PU formulations reliant on green chemistry, or entirely new resins to lower environmental impact,” the authors said. “There is a great need for continued innovation in bio-based, and circular and/or biodegradable resins to serve as flexible, durable binders and coatings for the next-gen leather industry.”

Indeed, next-gen materials still heavily rely on synthetics, such as polyester, which accounted for 52 percent of the global fiber market in 2020, according to Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report. Innovation in “sustainable synthetics,” therefore will be critical, not only to shake fashion’s addiction to petrochemical derivatives but also to enable “alternative pathways” at the end of life that don’t involve landfills or incinerators.

“Polyester is public enemy No. 1 in the fashion industry’s search for more sustainable materials and in the larger anti-plastic crusade of recent years,” the report noted. “Next-gen material innovators have an opportunity to design-in versatile end-of-life strategies into their products to meet these needs and reduce consumer burden,” especially when regulations or cost incentives to close the loop come into increasing play.

Next-gen innovators might cast their eyes toward novel biofeedstocks, such as those derived from agricultural waste, such as wheat husks, banana stem and rice straw, or other low-impact natural resources, that can provide a rich source of cellulosic fibers without the heavy land, water and agrichemical use that comes with cotton. “Billions of tons of unused agricultural waste products around the globe have [the] potential for use in cellulosic or natural fibers,” the authors wrote. “There is also a wealth of opportunity in process solutions to transform nature-based derivatives into scalable, high-performance next-gen products.”

Other opportunities lie in the realm of “cellular agriculture” that uses cultivated animal cells, mycelial growth or microbe-derived building blocks to create transformative alternatives to animal-derived products. Because these technologies rely on bleeding-edge science and underdeveloped manufacturing at scale, however, this area of innovation is still rife with challenges. “Stakeholders in the next-gen industry should understand that biotech innovation requires investment and patience to be successful,” the authors said.

Still, there is no “silver bullet” to solve every problem, the report said. Instead, players across the ecosystem must work together to understand the different issues and fill the gaps as best they can. Next-gen innovators can also find lessons and inspiration in the alternative proteins industry. According to the Boston Consulting Group, plant-based and cultivated meats represented only 2 percent of the protein market in 2020. By 2035, it expects 22 percent of all meat, seafood, eggs and dairy consumed around the world to originate from non-animal sources. If next-gen materials follow a similar trajectory, direct replacements for animal-based leather, silk, down, fur, wool and exotic skins could grow by 80 percent every year for the next five years.

“There are similarities across food and fashion when it comes to the adoption of animal-free products,” the report said. “From a technology perspective, food and fashion share similar technologies and similar challenges. Brand involvement will be an important driver of adoption in the short term. In the long term, improved performance and lower costs will allow animal-free food and fashion to be just another everyday shopping category appreciated by the general public.”