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Up Close: In Conversation with Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling

Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Christophe Schilling, founder and CEO of sustainable material firm Genomatica, discusses the need for transparency at the start of the supply chain and Lululemon’s investment in his company.

Christophe Schilling Genomatica
Christophe Schilling, founder and CEO, Genomatica Courtesy

Name: Christophe Schilling

Title: Founder and CEO

Company: Genomatica

Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction:

We’ve created a new, 100 percent plant-based nylon, with the same quality and performance as widely used nylon, but made using renewably sourced feedstocks, biotechnology and fermentation, rather than fossil fuels. Eighty years after nylon was introduced, our innovation is poised to reshape the $960 billion textile industry by replacing the 6 million tons of nylon 6 (and 60 million tons of CO2) produced annually with our more sustainable solution. We’re now on track to showcase the world’s first nylon 6 yarns made with bio-based ingredients and unveil product showpieces by major brands in the coming months.

Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?

The cosmetics and personal care industry is pretty interesting. Leading brands have started to be more transparent about their supply chains. At Genomatica, we work closely with brands and manufacturers in cosmetics and personal care, and they’ve always seemed to have a strong pulse on consumer desires—especially their desire to know where their products and ingredients come from and how their stuff is made. The industry has seen the value consumers place on sustainable sourcing and put it to action by increasing visibility of product ingredients, shifting to more sustainable packaging and increasingly switching to more sustainable ingredients.

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We’re beginning to see more action in the apparel industry and more brands are emphasizing transparent supply chains and more sustainable ingredients. Just recently, Genomatica announced a partnership with global retailer Lululemon to bring Genomatica’s renewably-sourced, bio-based materials, like nylon, into Lululemon’s products. It’s encouraging to see these actions, and we hope to see more brands and manufacturers follow suit.

How would you describe yourself as a consumer?

Mindful. I try to consider the impact of what I buy before making a purchase.

As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?

Transparency is my top priority as a consumer. I recognize that things aren’t perfect now and how and where our products are currently sourced from isn’t always a pretty story. But we need to have an honest and transparent understanding of where our products are coming from now, so that we can identify the gaps and where improvements can be made.

What’s your typical work (or weekend) uniform?

I don’t have a typical attire, as what I wear shifts based on whether I’m working from home or the office, or what my schedule looks like for that day. So my “uniform” can range from a business suit to jeans and a T-shirt, or even athletic wear.

Which fashion era is your favorite?

I’m more interested in the evolution of fashion over time rather than any particular era. However, today’s fashion trends are particularly interesting with the increased focus on where apparel comes from and where it goes at the end of product life.

Who’s your style icon?

Sean Connery’s look as James Bond.

What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?

Over the past year, we’ve substantially increased our work with brands and deepened our efforts to better understand their customers. Previously, we’d focused our efforts on more upstream parts of the value chain, but this shift was intended to help us gain firsthand knowledge of how our technology can help solve problems that brands are facing. With this shifted focus, we’re working to ensure that what we’re offering can first make a positive environmental impact, and second, fulfill a desire for the end-user.

How would you describe your corporate culture?

Our corporate culture is driven by our people and our collective values: We’re real, innovative, united and relentless. We are mission-driven to make our world a better place. We care deeply about the climate crisis and our team is driven to use their skills and expertise to enable high impact.

What can companies learn from Covid-19?

The Covid-19 pandemic was a real test of the fabric of a company and the trust leaders had built with their teams. It taught business leaders that flexibility is essential and you have to demonstrate a high degree of empathy during times of high stress and rapid change.

We also found that this time led consumers to reflect on what they truly valued—and perhaps a surprise to some, sustainability remained top of mind or even growing in its importance. Last summer, a Genomatica survey found that over half of Americans believed that governments and brands should prioritize sustainability despite the pandemic, illustrating the importance of the issue among consumers and serving as a call for businesses to step up and take action.

What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?

Transparency in the value chain must be the industry’s top priority right now. There’s been increased focus on a product’s end of life, in no small part because things like landfills and plastic in the ocean are easier to see. Now that we know how bad a product’s end of life can be, there’s a bigger driving force to make things better. But so few people know the beginning-of-life story because no one has wanted to tell it. There needs to be ownership earlier in the value chain and more visibility into what’s going on to open the opportunity to make things better. Greater transparency can be a great driver of positive change in the industry.

What keeps you up at night?

Number one, we are in a climate crisis, and I have strong concerns over the speed—or lack thereof—of our actions to mitigate our impacts. On top of that, there are huge issues of a lack of fairness, equity and inclusion in our society that must be a top priority to address.

What makes you most optimistic?

Seeing consumers, brands and governments place increasing importance on and taking public, tangible action to mitigate their environmental impacts makes me the most optimistic. In our own recent experience, our partnership with Lululemon represents the brand’s first-ever equity investment in a sustainable materials company, a second commercial plant powered by our technology is being built, and we’ve increased our network of product distributors, enabling us to bring our technology to more people.