Meet The Former Corporate Lawyer On A Mission To Turn The Materials Industry Vegan

Nicole Rawling has co-created the Material Innovation Initiative – the ‘GFI for vegan materials’.

You were a corporate lawyer for 6 years before moving into animal advocacy. What made you want to quit a presumably high-paying gig to work in the nonprofit sector?

It was a difficult decision to leave my high-paying law firm job because I enjoyed what I did and had the opportunity to work with incredibly smart colleagues. My firm also had a wonderful pro bono policy where I could work on animal protection litigation.

I had just given birth to my second son and, at the time, it had been hard for me to maintain the predictable schedule I needed as a parent of young children.

Second, my husband at the time had gotten a job offer in North Carolina, which significantly reduced our living expenses. It seemed like the perfect time to leave and devote my energy to animal protection full-time.

You also spent time at the Good Food Institute (GFI) overseeing their international programs before co-founding the Material Innovation Initiative (MII). What did you learn at GFI that’s been helpful in the current venture?

I strongly believe in GFI’s theory of change: that consumers will buy products which taste good, are reasonably priced, and are easily accessible.

Efforts to change people’s behavior to stop eating animals haven’t been as effective as we would like because we are asking people to give up something they love.

GFI’s premise really resonates with me: that people don’t eat meat because they want to kill an animal, they eat meat despite that.

We don’t have to ask people to give up anything if the market provides the taste, price, and convenience they want. In this way, markets can be powerful forces for good.

The same theory of change applies to our work at MII.

Why did you start MII?

Stephanie Downs originally approached me with the idea to create a “GFI for vegan materials,” which I thought was brilliant.

Nicole Rawling, co-founder, MII.

I began investigating the impact this could have, and I quickly became convinced of the necessity of creating such an organization.

In this process, I had many of my assumptions challenged, particularly when it came to the relative importance of materials as a profit driver for factory farming.

I, like many, believed that an animal’s skin, fur, or feathers counted only as byproducts of the meat industry.  Leather is the second most profitable product of a cow, and in the case of fur, silk, and exotic skins, the animal material itself is the most profitable product.

I knew then as I do now that we can’t end factory farming until we find better replacements for all of the products it creates.

You co-founded the organisation with Stephanie: Why did you decide to do this together and what do you each bring to the table to make this a success?

Stephanie and I instantly connected when we met in India, where she was building Good Dot and I was founding GFI-India.

She is a serial entrepreneur with a background in working on corporate social responsibility at fashion and automotive companies.

I am a seasoned nonprofit executive and lawyer who established and ran all of GFI’s operations outside of the United States, including overseeing the science and technology, innovation, policy, corporate engagement, communications, development, and operations programs.

We both had witnessed first hand –– and participated in –– the transformative rise of plant-based meat, and we knew what it would take to do the same for next-gen, animal-free materials.

Our skill sets fit together perfectly for this venture, and we’re both extremely passionate about MII’s goals.

MII is still a new initiative – you founded it in 2019 and launched in May last year: Where are you at in terms of achievements, development and collaborations? Any wins you can share?

It’s been a whirlwind! We launched right as the world was about to be thrown into Covid-induced turmoil.

Even so, I’m excited to say that we’ve had a number of wins, and that brands are hungrier than ever to find innovative materials.

You may recall the heartbreaking story of the thousands of farmed mink who were culled to prevent the spread of a mutated version of Covid-19. Pressure to remove similar supply-chain vulnerabilities is mounting.

MII seeks to replace the use of animals in the materials industry. Photo of mink farm via Dzivnieku briviba on Flickr under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

All but three of the top 40 fashion, automotive, and home goods brands we’ve connected with last year were actively seeking innovative animal-free materials, and we’re happily playing matchmaker between brands and promising startups.

We’ve secured multiple corporate partnerships, including one with a multi-billion-dollar French luxury brand.

We’ve built our foundational team and are close to hiring a number of critical roles in early 2021.

We were awarded a 2020 Top Nonprofits Award from GreatNonprofits and a Platinum rating for Transparency from GuideStar.

And we’re just getting started!

What are some of the most innovative solutions or materials you’re seeing at the moment?

At the moment, mycelium-based products are showing great promise, and in particular, mycelium leather.

We’re continuing to see improvements in performance and production efficiency with this technology, and recent startup-brand collaborations should yield exciting results for scale.

But the next-gen material market is so nascent that it’s far too soon to pick any winners.

We’re seeing imaginative approaches from every corner of the globe, from novel sourcing to intelligent new production tech, and it’s going to take many different solutions to replace every material currently derived from animals.

What does your day-to-day work consist of?

On a high level, my days are dedicated to ecosystem-building.

I’ve been connecting with investors, startups, brands, and scientists to create the network we’ll need to accelerate the pace of change. I’m also focused on establishing our program areas and finding the perfect people to lead them.

On a granular level, I would say about 40% of my day is meeting with industry professionals, 25% writing reports and conducting research, 15% fundraising, 10% internal staff meetings and oversight, and 10% administrative.

Part of your mission is to help companies scale up: How do you do this?

We connect startups with the resources they need to scale, from introducing them to investors and brands to providing them with technical support and advising. We fast-track innovation in three main ways:

  1. We identify and assess innovative materials and technologies
  2. We spur investments, research, and development on select innovations
  3. We partner with brands, retailers, and suppliers to get sustainable materials to market

How will you measure the success of MII?

We have very specific organizational objectives in the near term that relate to scaling next-gen material technology, channeling investment dollars toward these materials, and getting more products to market.

But ultimately success for MII means that animals are no longer used for their skin, hair, feathers, or silk, or in the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries, and that these materials are replaced with alternatives that are high-performance and eco-friendly.

Vegan luxury shoe brand Veerah uses algae biomass for soft, sustainable cushioning, replacing more than 30% of petroleum in traditional foam. Photo via Veerah.

Your team is predominantly female. Tell us why?

This is actually a joke within MII that we need to focus on diversity and hire more men!

Honestly, our team is mostly women by accident. Most of the people on the team started as volunteers or contractors at low hourly rates because they believed in our mission and enjoyed our supportive and autonomous working environment.

We then brought them into the team full-time because they proved themselves and we worked together so well.

Anne Green, for example, left GFI to work with us even though I couldn’t pay her for over 6 months! Emily Byrd, also a former GFI employee, helped us develop our communications program at a rate much lower than she deserved. Toube Benedetto has been volunteering with us now for almost 9 months and has been such a wonderful addition to the team, we are going to hire her full-time.

I think this situation worked out really well for these women and MII in the long run but I also think it speaks to a bigger issue in nonprofits which disproportionately negatively affects women: low pay and taking advantage of compassion.

I plan on working on those issues at MII but it is a much bigger issue, especially in the animal protection movement.

How is MII funded?

We have two funding streams. Right now, the vast majority of our funding is through philanthropy. We are very lucky to have a handful of donors who truly understand how we can use the markets to affect positive change for animals and the environment.

We also receive money through paid consulting from the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries.

We need philanthropy because most of our audiences cannot pay for our services.

A big part of our work is encouraging more scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors to enter the market. This requires outreach to people who do not already see the value in our work.

We also help material start-ups on various issues and these start-ups generally do not have the funds to pay us.

As our goal is to create more competition, we want to be able to help all promising start-ups, not just those with funds.

Finally, we need to create a positive and engaging public dialog on the need for and opportunity in next-gen materials.

As the industry is not big enough or has enough money for a trade association or similar collaborative body, this is the type of work we can do to significantly advance the number of companies in this space and interest in these materials.

We also believe that industry should pay when it can. Thus, we charge the big brands for services as they are actively looking for these alternative materials.

Find out more about the Material Innovation Initiative.

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