SXSW Panel Recap: Engineering the Future With Mushrooms and Diamonds

Not your weird aunt’s future, a cool future

Diamonds, leather, and meat have been consumer favorites for thousands of years, but huge advances in biotechnology have jump started their alternatives and are supercharging the sustainable and conscious market.

Now lab diamonds, mushroom leather, and plant-based meat are the future, haters be damned. “People are going to change because they’ll have to. The market is changing. The inevitability is there,” said panelist Dan Widmaier, founder and CEO of Bolt Threads, a company creating Mylo, the mycelium-based leather alternative. Jessica Appelgren, VP Mkting + Experience of Impossible Foods, said, “We’re trying to redefine meat. We are meat. There are not enough resources to continue producing traditional meat, so we’re going to replace it.”

There is, says the entire panel, moderated by Virginia Postrel, author and columnist, still an environmental opportunity to turn back the clock on climate change by shifting away from the traditional industrial ranching and farming methods, but “time is ticking.” One positive is that Gen Z is hellbent on doing things differently. “Kids growing up learning about climate change plus having access to really delicious plant-based food are going to be unstoppable,” said Appelgren. And Mads Twomey-Madsen, VP of Sustainability at Pandora concurs: “Young consumers are building a new story about how they relate to new materials” and they are more frequently opting for brands and materials that are innovative and sustainability-forward.

What about blood diamonds (a topic that arose several times via audience questions)? Pandora, the world’s largest jewelry brand, does not use mined diamonds and is “low-carbon, circular, inclusive, and fair,” will “shift to 100% recycled silver and gold by 2025 and reduce CO2 emissions across the full value chain 50% by 2030.” Their lab-created diamonds are a growing market, especially for new generations, and most consumers view them “just as magical and special” as the mined diamonds, if not more so because of the accessibility and significant reduction in harm. Twomey-Madson riffed on their catchphrase, “‘Diamonds: They’re forever and they’re for all y’all,’ as you say in Austin.”

Now the production of these new materials just has to catch up to the demand. Values these brands have to consider are the same as any other non-tech or sustainable brand, just often reordered: Taste, aesthetics, and price. Even better, the supply will increase as innovation becomes paramount. Considering the entire plant kingdom, and the fantastic world of fungi, the possibilities are virtually endless when it comes to developing new foods. Applegren said ,“We can already recreate fish, meat, dairy; we can lower sodium and fat. So what else can we do? We can create entirely new categories.”

All of the panelists agreed that the opposition is strong, but that moving forward as quickly, efficiently, and as correctly as possible is the key to the future. Everything is suspect until it’s the new normal. Cars took over horses as the main mode of transportation; smartphones replaced film cameras as the main mode of photography. Plant-based, sustainable, ethically sourced materials will replace cruelty-driven and environmentally unsafe ones.

Widmaier said, “The most precious resource we have is biodiversity and if we destroy it it’s gone forever because we don’t have billions of years to rebuild it.” And Appelgren seconds it: “Biodiversity is key.” For example, in ten years ranchers will be shifting to grow more plants than animals, and grocery chains will carry more plants, fewer animals, “not just your aunt’s weird vegan section. I think my kids will be proud they lived through the shift, but my grandkids will think the process – cutting down trees to plant soy to feed animals to butcher and ship and sell for parts – is batshit crazy.”

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