MII Launch Affords a Central Unifier for Greener Materials Development, Sourcing
Transitioning into a mainstream rather than a specialty segment, ecologically sound approaches to apparel manufacturing can be found in brands that claim full sustainability and others that launch capsule collections based in greener practices. With each of these important steps toward manufacturing clothing that leads toward a healthier planet, advancements in producing materials that contribute to a sustainable supply chain are crucial.
To increase exposure for manufacturers of eco-friendly materials, Stephanie Downs, an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience, and Nicole Rawling, a lawyer with more than 13 years of corporate and nonprofit advisory experience, recently launched a new resource for the apparel industry. The two plant-based food-industry veterans recently launched the Material Innovation Initiative.
The nonprofit group works with materials makers and technology producers to refine formulations and approaches within the sustainable plant-based-materials category that serves the fashion, automotive and home-goods industries, eventually forging partnerships with brands and retailers.
“Most people have heard of the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. We were part of the movement to develop that. I ran the international programs for a nonprofit called the Good Food Institute, so we are now duplicating those programs for materials,” Rawling explained. “We just saw a huge increase in entrepreneurs, startups and investors in this space because of what the Good Food Institute does, and we saw a similar need in the materials space.”
Through cultivating competition within the fashion marketplace, MII’s goal is to create accessibility for the typical consumer to purchase products within the sustainable and plant-based-apparel category, which is often viewed as exclusive.
“Our belief is to use the marketplace. We feel there should be more competition out there. The better the products, the lower the prices, and the consumers get what they need,” Rawlings said. “They want reasonably priced goods that are beautiful and made with the high quality of animal materials but with the added benefit of not harming animals and the environment.”
As with many trends that make their way into apparel from the food industry, the demand for natural foods paved the way for the eventual increase in demand in apparel. Due to consumer demand for responsibly made goods, trends in apparel are ticking toward plant-based products.
“Consumers are demanding more-sustainable products. Currently, there are not a lot of high-quality alternatives to animal materials at scale,” said Kirsty Stevenson, senior director of brand and product sustainability at Gap and a member of the MII advisory board. “The work of the Material Innovation Initiative is enabling brands greater accessibility to the alternate materials they need to meet their customers’ demands.”
To date, the San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered MII is working to promote the missions of Bolt Threads, EcoPel, Ecovative Design, Natural Fiber Welding, Orange Fiber, Piñatex and VitroLabs. In addition to these materials providers, who are happy to work with MII, apparel manufacturers are also excited to establish connections with like-minded supply-chain partners.
Rebecca Mink of the California-headquartered, made-in-Italy luxury vegan footwear and accessories brand Mink depends on quality materials to make her pieces at a factory where goods for other exclusive brands are also made. She is excited to work with MII to develop vegan-leather options for her brand and to share the process with the industry.
“They [MII] think about the full spectrum. How a company makes it—is it in a sustainable way? If they got a big order, are they going to be able to sustain it and not collapse and go bankrupt?” she explained. “That could really hurt the image of this movement in sustainable fashion, and it also causes a problem with the identity. How are we going to trust anyone unless they thought this through?”
For Mink, MII’s thorough approach to research, development and scaling a business is a fresh approach to the vegan-materials market. Echoing these sentiments, House of Fluff Chief Executive Officer Kym Canter feels that MII is the central unifier for materials producers, brands and investors. As a brand that creates vegan luxury faux fur, with recently launched cactus-leather goods and a bio-based fur-alternative product launching later this year, Canter foresees many benefits to working with MII.
“The great thing about what they are doing is that their scope is so large and they are so thorough,” she said. “If you don’t know how to bring your goods to market, things don’t happen. MII becomes the middle person between connecting us—the brands—to the makers of these new materials, who in some cases aren’t familiar with fashion.”
According to Rawling, 55 percent of consumers across the United States would prefer a leather alternative, regardless of region, gender or economic background. Forty-seven percent of those cite concerns for animals as the reason for this preference, while 29 percent are concerned about environmental responsibility.
“Consumers really do want these alternative materials that are better for the environment and do not kill animals,” she said. “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.”