Our drive for societal and industrial progress has severely harmed our planet. We have indiscriminately used resources, polluted our environment, and reduced biodiversity. The consequences are dire and now we are facing climate changes that, if we do not act now, might become irreversible.

From the beginning, the development of our society has been closely tied to our ability to create, advance, and use complex materials such as steels, plastics, biomaterials, glasses, ceramics, and concrete. These materials have allowed us to build infrastructures, create new technologies, and improve overall quality of life for billions of people. However, sourcing, production, use and end of life of materials also entails long-term negative impact for people and the environment such as substantial energy consumption and, in some cases, environmental degradation, significantly contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Addressing these challenges demands urgent adoption of sustainable solutions to steer toward a society that acts in balance with our limited resources. Paradoxically, the quest for new materials is paramount in this transition. It demands, however, a fresh perspective on sourcing materials, leveraging digital tools, reimagining product design and manufacturing, and embracing circular business models that promote the efficient use of resources, stay clear from the buildup of toxic substances and adapt to market dynamics—all while safeguarding human health and the environment, as well as striving to disconnect raw material usage from economic growth.

In this reorientation process, advancements in materials science and technology offer unparalleled opportunities to design, synthesize and characterize new materials that are resource-efficient, environmentally safe, and enablers of efficient recycling processes. Initiatives such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have already been devised to guide and promote sustainability, with materials playing a pivotal role across most of them.

Ongoing research aimed at tackling these global challenges includes various fronts. For instance, research on construction materials, primarily steel and concrete, is currently focusing on achieving low, net zero or even negative carbon footprint. Similarly, there are intense exploration efforts on alloys and compounds that enable harvesting, storing, transporting, and converting fossil-free energy. Coordinated research initiatives are in motion to substitute hazardous or toxic functional materials with environmentally sustainable alternatives that have reduced environmental impact. Naturally, endeavors in this direction must prioritize technologies that eschew hazardous chemicals and embrace resource circularity. Moreover, the integration of data science into materials discovery processes represents a promising avenue for accelerating the development of advanced, efficient, and sustainable materials, while ensuring through rigorous assessments that life cycle impacts are minimized.

While industry spearheads the sustainability transition, partnering with academia is essential for driving a materials revolution. Close collaboration among researchers, industry stakeholders, and investors is essential, alongside aligning legislation, regulations, policies, and standards with scientific and technological progress. Research-funding agencies must prioritize areas with the highest potential for addressing global challenges. Finally, commitment to excellence in research and education, combined with international collaboration, is key to realizing a sustainable future, where our planet and society thrive.

Figure. Sustainable developement