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An Interview with Nicole Rawling: CEO of Material Innovation Initiative

An Interview with Nicole Rawling: CEO of Material Innovation Initiative

The Material Innovation Initiative (MII) exists to make the sustainable option, the easy option. They are partnering with scientists, startups, brands, and retailers to bring next-gen materials to market. MII was founded on one basic premise: a market-driven shift toward sustainable materials is urgently needed.  The non-profit launched in 2019, as the markets were beginning to change with consumers and brands demanding improvements. In this episode, Nicole shares her part in creating more sustainable options for the industry. 

Carole

And welcome to another episode of Heart Stock Radio. I'm your host Carol Murphy. In just a moment our guest this week will be with us, Nicole Rawling. And she is the co-founder and the chief executive of Material Innovation Initiative.

And I'd always like to remind everyone listening that you can reach us at heartstockradio@gmail.com.

Hi Nicole, how are you?

Nicole

Wonderful, thank you so much for having me. 

Carole

And where are you speaking with us from? And what’s the weather like there?

Nicole

I am in the San Francisco Bay area, and honestly, the weather couldn’t be more nice. It’s probably in the low eighties. Just beautiful.

Carole

Yes,we're having one of those days here the whole weekend, just an absolutely beautiful fall day here in Montana and colors are changing rapidly. Well, frosty in the morning and warm during the day. Just loving our weather.

I wanted to start out with a little introduction. What is the Material Innovation Initiative?

And what is it that you do there?

Nicole

So the Material innovation initiative or as we call it MII for short is a nonprofit organization supporting the development of next-gen materials for the fashion and home goods industry.

What we mean by next-gen materials are materials that are more sustainable than the current materials on the market and do not use animals.

Carole

Tell us a little bit about why this is so important. What is your why and what is it that's motivating you to dedicate your life to this?

Nicole

So I think it's really two things. Number one, I am a mom. I have two young boys and, like I think most of us want to make sure that the world is a better place for our children. And I'm an attorney. I've been involved in environmental issues and animal cruelty issues for about 15 years. The materials that we currently use, mostly in the fashion industry, are really harmful not only to the environment, but they do harm animals.

I was really motivated to try and do something to make a more positive impact on the world, and I thought this would be a really good way to do it. Three years ago when we got started, nobody else was doing it.

Carole

Now it's getting to be a more crowded field. Hopefully we'll have a chance to talk about that more. But I'm wondering if you can talk about, you know, where you grew up and at what point in life did you realize this was going to be your mission and your calling?

Nicole

Honestly, I'm one of those people where I don't know where I'm from. I've moved around quite a bit. I was born in Seattle, Washington. I spent quite a bit of time in Massachusetts. I actually lived in Munich, Germany for four years while in middle school and then I went to school in Washington, DC. I lived in New York,  Chicago, North Carolina, and then the San Francisco Bay area. So I've been around a lot, which I also think gives me a really good perspective on how people live and different cultures.

I actually went vegetarian when I was around seven years old. I found out that we were actually eating animals. My mom told me we're having hamburgers for dinner. I was like, well, what's hamburgers? She's like, it's beef. Well, what's beef? It's a cow. And I absolutely flipped out. You know, most kids see so many books on animals and they feel so close to animals. Luckily, my mom was supportive enough to allow me to change my diet and she actually changed it with me. 

I think that was the real beginning to think about and really question what part of society that we just take for granted as normal, isn't maybe right. What could we do to be kinder to the planet and other species sharing it with us?

Carole

I would imagine there's a story behind traveling and living in so many different places growing up. Was there a profession that your mom or your dad was involved with that required them to move around?

Nicole

No. Well, they both had very international careers. My dad was British so he took some jobs that required him to travel quite a bit internationally, and then my mom was actually an international flight attendant before I was born. So I think they both really loved learning about other cultures and how other people live. 

That's actually how I ended up going into international affairs. That's what I studied in undergrad because I wanted to learn the same thing. It's just amazing how similar humans are, but how different our cultures are. 

Carole

The way norms and values vary from place to place, even though we have that common thread.

I find it fascinating also.

What were some of the more interesting things or maybe things that might have set you back a little bit in all of the different places that you've lived?

Nicole

Yeah, I think middle school is a very influential time. My oldest is actually in middle school now, so I can see it from his perspective too. When I was in Munich, I was actually at an international school with people from 28 different countries. I'd always lived in the United States before that. To me, that was a huge opportunity to see, again, how different we are and how, honestly, there's no one right way as well.

I think a lot of people who haven't had that international experience, don't quite understand that. Even if you live in one place for a long time, that can be really eye opening experience or perspective.

But then one of the challenges was actually coming back to the United States. The curriculum there wasn't as strong as it was when I came back, and so I was actually farther behind, especially in English and some other typical American subjects. I had to spend some time catching up there. But then, I gained that international perspective. 

Carole

I'm really curious about becoming a vegetarian as a youngster. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I think there's some misunderstanding about whether you get the right nutrients and if it’s possible for a child or a family even to live a healthy lifestyle as a vegetarian.

Nicole

Yeah, we did hear that a lot when I was growing up. Even now, both of my children are plant based. They're vegan. I had a vegan pregnancy. They're 10 and 12 and extremely healthy, and actually pretty smart.

There are some worries around there. There's so much conflicting information. All of us just want to do our best for our kids. There's been a number of times I've been worried about it too. But I think as long as, and this is what I also hear from other pediatricians and other research I've done, as long as you're on a generally plant based whole food diet, then you're healthy.

Whole foods means you should be eating lots of vegetables and grains, not a lot of processed foods, and a good amount of protein per day. They eat a ton of vegetables, fruit and grains.

So I've actually had doctors tell me that my blood was like the best blood they've ever seen and we really don't pay a lot of attention besides focusing on the whole foods plant based diet.

Carole

So you also mentioned coming back to the United States after middle school. What kind of culture shocks did you have at that point?

And I'm just kind of wondering about your educational experiences, what they were like from that point forward?

And then you mentioned international studies, but what made you then decide to go to law school?

Nicole

Yeah, it was definitely challenging in the beginning. I was in a private school in Massachusetts. My classmates were really hard workers and very, very smart.

I do think there's problems now with the amount of stress we put on kids, and how much we push them to succeed. I was seeing that with a lot of them. I was behind, but I also saw a lot of value in that real world experience and those perspectives, and that willingness to be a critical thinker, to challenge existing norms.

And so I ended up in a high school that allowed me to do that. I felt like I really was able to thrive there. I ended up wanting to do more of the international work and I went to Georgetown School foreign service, which is a really good school for doing international politics. I really enjoyed having so many students from different areas of the world. Having those experiences brought into the classroom was really valuable.

I do still think there's a part missing with the real world experience, and there's a lot to learn that's not just in the textbook.

So I think our educational system needs to focus more on that. But I also think challenges are what make us strong. Quite a few life challenges brought me to where I am today. If it was all pretty easy, I think my life would be pretty boring.

Carole

At what point did you decide or know that you wanted to go to law school?

Nicole

Actually this is more of a personal story. I did end up marrying my high school sweetheart.

We have since divorced. He didn't really want to live outside the United States so that I had to do a little bit of a career switch then and figure out what I could do that I was really passionate about, that would allow me to stay in the country. Law school seemed to make a lot of sense to me. I thought it was a great way to challenge injustices.

So I ended up working as a paralegal for a few years to kind of test it out because law school's hard and expensive and takes a long time and I did. I loved it.

I ended up writing my law school essays and wanting to use my law degree to help animals.

And I thought it would actually be a good way to weed out some schools who didn't support me because that was a pretty unique area of concentration at the time. I don't know if any school at the time had an animal law program, but that's what I did. I ended up going to Northwestern in Chicago and loved it.

Carole

Any mentors or folks that really made an impact on your career path and choices?

Nicole

Honestly, the biggest mentor I've ever had is my mom.

Carole

Can you talk a little bit more about that and how she influenced you? 

It's just mind boggling to me that you decided you wanted to be vegetarian and your mom went, Yeah, let's do that. I mean it's a great response. I appreciate it greatly, but it's not a response that I think a lot of moms would have had.

Nicole

Yeah, I give her tons of credit for that. I think she's told me since.., I don't really remember.

It was when I was seven, she told me she felt out about it too. So it was kind of a pushing at that point that made her think, okay yeah, let's do this.

I also hear from her that I wasn't the easiest child, so I don't know if I would have accepted if she said no. According to her, I was actually born an attorney and pretty argumentative even at that age.

I think she just had so much life experience before she had me being able to travel the world. For a woman in the 60s and 70s, that was not common. She went to countries all over which even now are fairly dangerous for women. Her bravery and I think trust in humans was really incredible. Her willingness to question things and support me in what I wanted to do and know that everybody has their own path.

I think as humans we are much too judgmental of others. We really need to support people and what they want to do and what brings them passion. If we're all a little bit less judgmental of others, we could all be our authentic selves. The world would be a really much happier place.

Carole

Indeedy.

We are at that point where we're going to take a little break here, and we will be right back and talk a little bit more about the Material Innovation Initiative. We'll be right back with Nicole. This is Heart Stock.

Welcome back. This is Heart Stock radio. I'm your host Carole Murphy and we were just speaking with Nicole Rawling. She is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Material Innovation Initiative.

So let's dig into your nonprofit. What is the overarching mission of your organization and how do you bring about change in the materials world?

Nicole

I think it's best really to start with things from a consumer perspective. I generally believe that people want to do good and they want to make the right choices. Most of us now are aware that at least some of our behaviors, the products we purchase, aren't great for the environment, and we probably have to do something about it. But it's hard, right? I am a single mom. I am running a company and I want to do good. I'm in it and I still don't understand everything that I should be doing.

What our theory of change is is that if consumers are able to purchase materials, whatever's on your clothes or things you buy in your home, like your rugs and couches, and then materials in your cars, like the leather, the wall - if those items were at price parity with what's currently on the market, same quality and same aesthetics, consumers really shouldn't have to sacrifice and they're readily available; where you normally go to purchase whatever it is and then they're also better for the environment and they're better for animals, then people will buy them.

People aren't buying these materials because they want to have a negative effect. It's just because it's the only thing on the market. And so our entire organization is focused on trying to bring those products to market so consumers can make those better decisions.

We work with scientists to help get more research into areas where we think these products need to be improved. We work with entrepreneurs to get them into the space to create new companies. We work with investors because obviously none of this can be done without the money. We need some more investors in this space. And then we work with the material companies who exist, to help them and do what we can to make it easier for them to get their products to market. And then finally, we do work with fashion, automotive, and home goods brands, the big companies to help them understand what this market is, the advantages of these next-gen materials and help to match them up and make connections to the companies who are making the products.

Carole

Oftentimes this is kind of a conundrum. So many vegan options or non plant based options are synthetic. Can you talk a little bit about the role that synthetics play in your research?

Should we all just stop purchasing anything that's synthetic?

It's like what you mentioned earlier, what do we do? It's challenging as a consumer.

Nicole

It really is, for anybody out there who's worried about and wondering what they can do.

It is hard, it really is. The hard thing is synthetics are also extremely bad for the environment.

Synthetics are generally made from petrochemicals. Think fossil fuels. I think we all generally know that we need to be moving away from sources that use those petrochemicals.

So when we talk synthetics, to use common terminology, it's things like polyester, acrylic, nylon. Synthetics actually make up the majority of the volume of materials used in the fashion industry. I've heard statistics, it’s between 60% and 70% and so it really is large.

A lot of these synthetics are alternatives to animal based material, like polyester could be seen as an alternative to silk. Acrylic can be seen as alternative wool. PU or pleather is an alternative to leather.

Not only do they use petrochemicals but they also emit microplastics and microfibers into the environment. There's been a lot of studies recently showing that there's microplastics in everything. It's almost impossible to get away from them and it's really affecting all species on the planet, aquatic life, land animals and humans. I've read studies saying it's even worse when you consume aquatic life. A lot of the microplastics get into the waterways and then the small animals will eat them, and then it goes up the food chain and continuously accumulates in greater percentages in say like fish, and then humans will eat that, which also causes problems for humans. So it's not a pretty picture.

Carole

Are you inundated with opportunities and folks knocking on your door wanting assistance and partnership in developing? I feel this is relatively new but I see more and more demand from the consumer side and from the production and fashion side, all manufacturing levels and angles.

How do you decide who you work with if this is the case?

Nicole

It's funny because our consistent problem is that there's too many opportunities. We end up spending a lot of time trying to prioritize what would be the most effective and where our work is really needed. As a nonprofit, and we are about 94% funded by philanthropy, donors who care about the environment and animals and see changing the marketplace is the best way to do that rather than really just telling people what to do, it is quite a struggle right now.

One of the most exciting opportunities is a policy program. There's a number of policies that are actually hurting the entire next-gen materials industry, for example, labeling. 

In a few countries like Italy and Portugal, you cannot label one of these alternatives using the common term for animals. Even something like an alternative leather or you know, pleather is using leather in there, you can't use those terms. Even things like vegan leather, they won't let you use, and that can hurt the industry. Consumers are confused, right? When you see vegan leather, you know that that's not an animal. 

And then to tariffs, in the United States specifically the duty that we put on products coming into the United States is significantly higher if it's not one of these animal based materials. That really puts the market at a disadvantage.

That's the type of work that we can do that really helps the entire industry. We're looking to hire a policy person hopefully next year.

Carole

Are any of your partners actually making these products in the US? I know that there's a company in Illinois, that's the only one that I know of, that's making a truly plant based alternative.

Nicole

There is. I'm guessing you're talking about Natural Fiber Welding. They are in Peoria, Illinois and yes, they are manufacturing what we're calling the next-gen leather. They are marketing it as 100% plastic free. It is on the market. They just announced a number of partnerships recently with fashion brands. That's such a great first step because a lot of these companies are in the R&D stage and not on the market. But natural fiber welding and their Mirum material is on the market, and you can actually go out and buy some of their products now.

Carole

And how does your system work? If I'm an innovator and I created something in my kitchen at home, and I really think I want to bring it to the market, and I come and see you, what is your process like from there?

Nicole

It really depends on what you need. First, we will sort of talk to you to make sure you're legitimate, right? We can't just help everybody who has an idea. But then, if you really do have a great product and the skill set that's needed, we can do anything from helping you develop a business plan right to asking our fashion designer on staff who will look at your material and give you some advice. She has been for decades in the fashion industry. She can say, look, this is really great in these areas but needs more work in these other areas.

We can connect you to investors. Or we have a material scientist on the team who could talk to you about what your process is and if there's any knowledge we have that can help you improve on that process.

We do have lists of, we call them component suppliers, but these materials require inputs. One of the issues is, let's take the leather for example, it does usually need coding. Not all companies do, but most do need it. We can help you find more sustainable codings.

And then we can also connect you to brands. We do work with a lot of the fashion brands and we're happy to make those introductions. 

Carole

We have maybe about two minutes left. I'm hoping you can share what might be on the horizon coming up for your organization. What do you anticipate?

Nicole

Actually a project we're working on now, that's really exciting, is called Environmental Data Coalition. We are basically a bunch of scientists and lawyers. We love data and we nerd out on all that information, and we need better data in the industry comparing the environmental impact of different materials. So we're doing a coalition with the industry to help come together and agree on some parameters.

Carole

Is there labeling included in that? And also before we run out of time, I want to squeeze in this last question. We need to hopefully share with listeners how they might find you.

Nicole

Yes. Your first question, labeling is always going to be an issue I think.

And then, I would love for people to come to our website and learn about us. It's https://materialinnovation.org/

Actually, we have put up a brand new website from mid October. 

Carole

Oh, a new website. That’s exciting! 

Nicole

Yeah, hopefully, with a lot of facts and hopefully answering a lot of the consumers and industries questions.

Carole

Fantastic.

I really appreciate you sharing your story, Nicole, and the work that you're doing. I appreciate you both doing it and sharing it with our listeners. Thank you so much. 

Nicole

Carole, thank you so much, I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you so much for what you do for the planet. Getting these stories out is so important.

Carole

My cup is full. Every time I do this, I feel so lucky and I'm speechless as you can tell. But really, I feel very fortunate. Thank you.

Nicole

Thank you so much.

Carole

As always, we will be back again next week. Thank you so much for listening. This is Carole Murphy, your host. Thanks for listening to Heart Stock. Peace.

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