Material efficiency, as discussed in this Meeting Issue, entails the pursuit of the technical strategies, business models, consumer preferences and policy instruments that would lead to a substantial reduction in the production of high-volume energy-intensive materials required to deliver human well-being. This paper, which introduces a Discussion Meeting Issue on the topic of material efficiency, aims to give an overview of current thinking on the topic, spanning environmental, engineering, economics, sociology and policy issues. The motivations for material efficiency include reducing energy demand, reducing the emissions and other environmental impacts of industry, and increasing national resource security. There are many technical strategies that might bring it about, and these could mainly be implemented today if preferred by customers or producers. However, current economic structures favour the substitution of material for labour, and consumer preferences for material consumption appear to continue even beyond the point at which increased consumption provides any increase in well-being. Therefore, policy will be required to stimulate material efficiency. A theoretically ideal policy measure, such as a carbon price, would internalize the externality of emissions associated with material production, and thus motivate change directly. However, implementation of such a measure has proved elusive, and instead the adjustment of existing government purchasing policies or existing regulations— for instance to do with building design, planning or vehicle standards—is likely to have a more immediate effect.