New fabric samples made for Lululemon are identical to the proprietary fabric that the company uses to make high-end yoga pants. But the fabric is the first to be made with recycled carbon emissions. The athletic brand partnered with LanzaTech, a biotech startup that turns pollution into ethanol for use in fuel or chemicals—in this case, the feedstock for polyester.
The company compares its tech to a brewery: Instead of yeast making beer, microbe-filled vats convert pollution into ethanol. “This particular ethanol comes from a steel mill in China, where we have a commercial plant operating which ferments basically carbon monoxide gas and converts that to ethanol,” says Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech. “Then we can take that ethanol and make anything that we want.” At the steel mill, if the carbon monoxide wasn’t captured, it would be burned and released as CO2 pollution.
The company worked with a chemical partner called India Glycols to turn the ethanol into monoethylene glycol (MEG), a chemical normally made from fossil fuels. Another partner, the textile manufacturer Far Eastern New Century, used the MEG to make polyester. When made into Lululemon’s fabric, it’s exactly the same as the version made from fossil fuels. “From our current samples, the fabric has the same properties as traditional polyester, even when used in our most complex fabric,” says Ted Dagnese, chief supply chain officer at Lululemon.
At the moment, it costs more to make the fabric than it does to make polyester from crude oil or natural gas. “We’re taking ethanol to ethylene, and this fossil supply chain starts with ethylene that today is super cheap because of fracking,” Holmgren says. “So we’re kind of adding a step. And unless there’s a tipping fee or a carbon tax, it’s going to take a long time to get to cost competitive because we have an extra processing step.” But, she says, the company is working on a new synthetic biology process that can go directly from gas to MEG. When that works, it will be cost competitive.
For Lululemon, the new fabric is a way to shrink its carbon footprint. The company hasn’t yet announced which products the fabric may be used in. But by partnering with LanzaTech at an early stage, along with companies like Unilever, which is using recycled emissions in laundry detergent, Lululemon is helping move the tech forward.
“They know they can’t get there from here unless they really push and pull companies like ours and partner. Otherwise, there isn’t going to be anything, unless they’re willing to take this risk,” Holmgren says, adding that ultimately recycled emissions could be used widely to replace petrochemicals. “I see a future where we don’t have to use fresh fossil carbon to make all the things we use in our daily lives.”