Downward dogging is on track for a planet-friendly upgrade.
Lululemon is the latest marquee brand to get in bed with a materials innovator solving for fashion’s hard-to-quit fossil-fuel habit. Time is running out to make the switch from petroleum- to plant-based alternatives, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report—which served as a “code red for humanity,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said when the Aug. 9 research made headlines. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”
Stretchy synthetic fabrics are core to Lululemon’s products, but the yoga pants maker’s equity investment—its first ever—in Genomatica will aid the Vancouver company in curbing its reliance of planet-polluting nylon. The deal also helps Lulu tick the boxes on Impact Agenda goals to use only sustainable materials and “end-of-use solutions” by 2030.
Kristin Marshall, an analyst for data and insights firm Lux Research, welcomed Lululemon’s announcement. “This news is exciting but not surprising given that companies in the fashion industry have been desperately searching for ways to reduce their impact, with biomaterials being a key option,” she told Sourcing Journal. What sets this deal apart, she added, is the “size of the potential impact.”
“Nylon is responsible for a nontrivial volume of the materials used in the textile industry and is the largest volume of synthetic material used by Lululemon,” Marshall said.
The news marks a major leap forward for San Diego-based firm, whose bioengineering model for producing sustainable and renewably sourced materials and chemicals attracted $118 million in a Series C funding round announced last month. Genomatica uses fermentation and biotechnology to transform plant-based ingredients into common chemical building blocks like nylon and “disrupt the apparel industry through sustainable sourcing,” CEO Christophe Schilling said.
What’s more, other giants of industry are backing Genomatica’s technology. Cargill and Helm forged a joint venture, dubbed Qore, to construct a $300 million facility to produce bio-derived BDO, “an important precursor to spandex,” Marshall noted, leveraging the biotech firm’s processes.
Ditching nylon for “renewable content” will affect half of the synthetics trafficked through Lululemon’s supply chain, said Patty Stapp, vice president of raw materials for the clothing company. “We have seen Genomatica repeatedly and successfully deliver industry-changing bio-based materials at commercial scale and are confident this partnership can truly change the way we source products, while continuing to provide the exceptional quality we are known for,” she added.
On the question of how plant-based nylon performs in comparison to its traditional petrochemical counterpart, Genomatica’s product is “identical” to what the brand has used in the past, Lululemon noted, and serves as “the cornerstone of our product quality that we are known for.”
While teaming with Genomatica supports the athletic lifestyle brand’s transition to a “circular ecosystem,” Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald said, the news heralds the next big step in its alternative materials journey. Last month, Lulu unveiled an accessories capsule crafted from Mylo, the mushroom-root leather-esque material aiming to unseat the animal-derived standard. “Sustainable innovation will continue to play a key role in the future of retail and product, and for us, leveraging a material like Mylo demonstrates our commitment to creating a healthier environment through lower-impact products, while also giving us the ability to reimagine iconic pieces in our line through a sustainability lens,” Sun Choe, the athleticwear company’s chief product officer, said in a statement at the time.
It’s also experimenting with making clothing out of captured carbon emissions, with help with from Illinois-based LanzaTech, whose processes convert carbon waste into ethanol, which in turn can produce polyester.
But Lululemon is far from alone is aligning with a materials disrupter, as peers race to overhaul sourcing ahead of 2030. So far this year, Adidas invested in Spinnova’s initial public offering, with the funding giving the German brand access to the Finnish firm’s textile fibers made from wood or waste. It also joined H&M, another Spinnova partner, and Bestseller in funding a $35 million raise for fellow Finland-based textile technology company Infinited Fiber, which turns cellulose-based raw materials, like cotton-rich textile waste, into Infinna, a premium-quality regenerated textile fiber that mimics the look and feel of cotton. Meanwhile, H&M-backed TreetoTextile is building out a $42.5 million Swedish facility to commercialize its alternative cellulosic fiber.
As brands, investors and Gen Z pay closer attention to ESG, innovative materials and the companies that make them are poised to capitalize on shifts underway in fashion. The Material Innovation Initiative’s first-of-its-kind State of the Industry Report on future-forward materials cited scientific advancements, tech breakthroughs, shifting consumer priorities and regulatory trends as some of the forces fueling the next-gen materials market’s rise to an estimated $2.2 billion by 2026.
“As we face potentially dire climate change, the next-gen material industry must be accelerated,” said Nicole Rawling, co-founding CEO of the Material Innovation Initiative, which published the report in June. “Significant investments, partnerships, and additional material companies and scientists tackling the issues facing the industry are desperately needed. Collaboration on sustainable innovation will result in both a prosperous future for successful material companies, brands, investors, and a livable future on Earth.”
Marshall, meanwhile, cautioned that materials disruptors rely on support from brands to grow, scale and truly effect change. “[T]he prior struggles of the bio-nylon space serve as an important lesson for brands: that sustainable solutions (even viable ones) will have a difficult time being realized without their help—whether this means investing in and working with startups or setting expectations with suppliers,” she said. “And, given that sustainability is driving consumer loyalty and differentiation in the industry, brands only passively looking for sustainable alternatives will rapidly fall behind their competitors.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 3:33 p.m. on Aug. 18 to reflect Lululemon’s comment on the plant-based nylon’s performance.