People around the world have swapped their jeans and khakis for comfy leggings and joggers—but activewear, which is largely made from petroleum-based materials like nylon and polyester, damages the planet. It does not biodegrade, but rather breaks into tiny fragments that end up in oceans and the food chain. And the process of extracting oil and manufacturing these fibers spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fueling climate change.
As the world confronts global warming, Lululemon is working to find more sustainable materials for its products. The $4.4 billion giant announces today that it has made an undisclosed investment in the bioengineering company Genomatica to produce nylon that is made from plants rather than petroleum. Lululemon says that this bio-based nylon can easily be plugged into its supply chain, so the brand can start using it immediately with the goal of switching entirely to renewable or recycled nylon over the next nine years.
It’s part of a broader trend in the fashion world of moving away from petroleum to plant-based products. But while this is an improvement over the status quo, it’s not necessarily a clear-cut win for the planet: Bio-based plastics are often not biodegradable, and more work needs to be done to quantify their environmental impact.
Why we love nylon
The DuPont Co. invented nylon in 1938. Since then, various forms of the synthetic fiber have found their way into almost every aspect of modern life. It’s found in carpets, car interiors, toothbrushes, surgical sutures, and, of course, clothing. It’s a particularly useful fabric in activewear because it is moisture wicking and can be made to stretch and offer compression.
While many fashion and activewear brands tend to use a lot of polyester, which is cheaper and slightly less durable than nylon, Lululemon has tried to set itself apart as a premium brand in the activewear category, so it uses more nylon than its counterparts. Currently, nylon makes up around half of all the materials that Lululemon uses. (Its second most heavily used material is polyester.)
“In order to get the kind of long-lasting performance we’re looking for, and to create the kind of fabrics that feel good to the touch, we rely heavily on nylon,” says Calvin McDonald, Lululemon’s CEO. “That’s why it was so important for us to find a more sustainable alternative to nylon, in particular.”
In the realm of synthetic materials, nylon is worse for the environment than other fibers when you consider its entire life cycle. A report by the Global Fashion Agenda, a fashion sustainability think tank, says that nylon has a higher environmental impact per kilogram of material than rayon, spandex, and polyester because more greenhouse gases are emitted during its manufacturing process. In Lululemon’s 2020 Impact Agenda, the company said that about 50% of its carbon impacts come from its fabrics. So switching to less-carbon-intensive materials could go a long way toward improving the company’s overall carbon footprint. Lululemon aims to reduce carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 60% by 2030 as part of its broader sustainability goals.
One of the most attractive aspects of Genomatica’s nylon is that it can easily be swapped into Lululemon’s existing supply chain. Often, when a new material is introduced into the manufacturing process, it requires designing entirely new products and training factory partners on how to use it. That could take months or years for a company the size of Lululemon. With Genomatica’s nylon, Lululemon expects to start incorporating the material into its mills this year.
“It’s a drop-in replacement,” says Marc Hillmyer, an independent expert in bio-based plastics at the University of Minnesota’s chemistry department. “This is typically easier for companies to manage because the molecules are identical.”
The move to cut nylon’s carbon footprint by using plant-based sources is part of a broader trend across many industries: Brands are now touting plant-based alternatives to plastics in everything from sneakers to artificial grass. “By using renewable, plant-based feedstock, we’re already significantly lowering the climate impact of the nylon,” says Christophe Schilling, Genomatica’s CEO. “Plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere, so they’re actively countering global warming. We’ve also worked to reduce the amount of carbon emitted from the manufacturing process.”
But some plants—like algae and bamboo—are less resource-hungry than others while still effectively capturing carbon. Genomatica has not shared which plants it is using for the particular bio-based nylon it is making with Lululemon (the companies want to keep the formula proprietary for some time before making it available to the rest of the fashion industry). And while Schilling says it could slash nylon’s carbon footprint by 90% or more, it has not yet disclosed exactly how the carbon emissions of this bio-based nylon compares with petroleum-based nylon.
What’s more, the plant-based nylon Genomatica has created is neither biodegradable nor compostable, since it has the same molecular structure as nylon. Its main selling point is that it can reduce nylon’s reliance on fossil fuels. But companies must still tackle the issue of what happens to the nylon at the end of its life.
Given that many brands are now touting their use of plant-based plastics, Hillmyer, at the University of Minnesota, urges consumers to be skeptical of some of their marketing claims. For one thing, we can’t assume that plant-based plastics have a smaller impact on the planet than those derived from petroleum because comparing the environmental impact of materials is very complicated. For instance, if you’re using plants as feedstock, you need to calculate how much energy and environmental resources are used in the agricultural process.
“You would have to do a full life-cycle analysis study that integrates questions like how much fertilizer and water was used, how much energy was involved with trucking the crop to the manufacturing plant,” Hillmyer says. “All of this can be quantified, but it’s a complex calculation.” When it comes to Genomatica’s nylon, much of the impact would depend on what types of plants are being used and how they are grown.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that many plant-based plastics on the market will not biodegrade. But Hillmyer says that there is a lot of research currently happening in the field of chemistry, and scientists have developed bio-based plastics that are able to break down under the heat and pressure of industrial compost facilities. He is confident that over time, they will also develop biodegradable plastics.
“I believe there will come a time in the near future when we will be able to create renewable, plant-based plastics that have a very low climate impact, and more than that, they will be fully recyclable and compostable,” he says. “We need to be doing the research now to get to that point.”
McDonald points out that this Genomatica partnership is just one part of a broader sustainability initiative. Like many companies, including Nike and Walmart, Lululemon plans to source renewable energy across its direct operations (though not in its partner factories), phase out single-use plastic, and reduce water consumption. The company has also invested in Mylo, a plant-based material derived from mushrooms that is an alternative to traditional leather, and plans to start including it in products this year. “This is not a one-off project,” he says. “It’s part of a much bigger plan.”
It is now clear that the fashion industry is actively accelerating climate change. Experts estimate that the sector is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. Earlier this month, the United Nations released a report that made it clear that all of these emissions are directly responsible for the extreme weather events we’re seeing around the world, and it is already too late to stop temperatures from rising over the next three decades. But the report pointed out that if the world aggressively and rapidly cuts its emissions, we may be able to limit temperatures from increasing beyond 2050. In other words, companies need to change their entire supply chains—and fast.
McDonald says he’s feeling the pressure. “We’re actively exploring other sustainable materials, including natural, biodegradable ones,” he says. “But our partnership with Genomatica comes out of the realization that we can’t really afford to wait. We need to make these immediate improvements while simultaneously working on next-generation materials.”