For most materials used to provide buildings, infrastructure, equipment and products, global stocks are still sufficient to meet anticipated demand, but the environmental impacts of materials production and processing, particularly those related to energy, are rapidly becoming critical. These impacts can be ameliorated to some extent by the ongoing pursuit of efficiencies within existing processes, but demand is anticipated to double in the next 40 years, and this will lead to an unacceptable increase in overall impacts unless the total requirement for material production and processing is reduced. This is the goal of material efficiency, and this paper aims to stimulate interest in the area. Four major strategies for reducing material demand through material efficiency are discussed: longer-lasting products; modularisation and remanufacturing; component re-use; designing products with less material. In industrialised nations, these strategies have had little attention, because of economic, regulatory and social barriers, which are each examined. However, evidence from waste management and the pursuit of energy efficiency suggests that these barriers might be overcome, and an outline of potential mechanisms for change is given. In bringing together insights into material efficiency from a wide range of disciplines, the paper presents a set of 20 open questions for future work.