Throughout human history, animals have been used as source materials for fabrics and accessories like leather, wool, silk, and “luxury” items including cashmere and fur. This practice has a significant impact on animals, and the environment due to negative practices such as land clearance, and agricultural and industrial pollution.
A number of emerging companies are working to develop and manufacture alternatives to the most sought-after animal-based materials. These innovators are utilizing lesser known properties of common items, such as pineapple leaves, cork, and bamboo to develop products that are sustainable and in some cases materially superior to their traditional counterparts.
Other startups are utilizing cell-culture technology to develop end products that are near biologically identical to animal-based materials, but without the detrimental environmental and ethical impacts of conventional manufacturing processes.
While these newly developed materials are moving closer to price parity with animal-based products, consumers have indicated that they are willing to pay more for the ethical alternatives. Established companies are recognizing this opportunity with a number of major fashion brands launching plant-based lines, or collaborations, within recent years, including Chanel, Gucci, and Hermès.
This industry of ethical fashion, led by startups and fueled by collaborations with leading manufacturers is growing quickly. Globally the market reached a value of nearly $6,349 million in 2020, having increased at a CAGR of 6.1% since 2015. The market is expected to grow to $10,109 million by 2025 at a CAGR of 9.7% and to a further $15,584 million by 2030 at a CAGR of 9.0%. The growth is mainly due to the growing awareness of sustainable, ethical fashion.
Vegan footwear is currently the leading segment of the ethical fashion market, accounting for over 41% of the market value in 2019. Leading shoe companies are embracing innovations in the materials field with Reebok, Adidas, and Kurt Geiger all releasing vegan product lines in 2021.
These market trends are echoed by increased investments in the space. According to Materials Innovation, investments in next-gen material alternatives reached $980 million last year, up from $425.5 million in 2020. The total number of companies working in the space has also increased significantly over the past eight years.
As Ingvar Helgason, the co-founder of VitroLabs, an SDC portfolio company producing cell-cultured leather alternatives, has said: “At a time when environmental stewardship is more important than ever, biotech companies have the opportunity to lead the way in changing how we produce materials and build supply chains.”