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For Lululemon and Zara fermentation and recyclability are the new black

Left: Zara x Circ set (Image courtesy of Zara) // Right: Lululemon x Geno shirt (Image courtesy of Lululemon)

It’s Earth Day week and the going-green initiatives are rolling in, or in this case, walking on the runway. For athletic apparel company Lululemon, fermentation is fashion-forward, and for fast-fashion giant Zara, circular clothing made from cotton waste is the new must-have collection.

Let's start with Lululemon where fossil fuels are out and fermentation is in. This April the Canadian multinational company launched its first products made from “renewably sourced, plant-based nylon,” according to a Tuesday announcement from the company.

In 2021 Lululemon partnered with Genomatica, also known as Geno, which combines advanced bioengineering like fermentation, powerful computer modeling, and industrial engineering to create sustainable materials.

Geno was Lululemon’s first investment in a sustainable materials company, as Lululemon has a broader goal to make 100% of its products with sustainable materials and end-of-use solutions by 2030 and 75% by 2025, as they move toward a circular ecosystem.

In addition, the company has specific plans involving using renewable or recycled polyester, nylon, and cotton, and providing traceability for its animal-derived and forest-based materials. By 2025 they also plan to cut their water usage in half as well as offer new options to resell, repair, and/or recycle their products, building on “Be Planet” the company’s online marketplace for customers to be “like new” gear.

The partnership with Geno dives into the company’s plans with nylon. Conventionally, the production of nylon relies on fossil fuels, like burning gas or crude oil. But Geno replaces petroleum, which Lululemon usually uses, with biological organisms, aka plants, creating a lower-impact alternative nylon, an important material in the performance apparel industry.

“As with all of the products that are produced with Geno technologies, we utilize biotechnology to convert plant-based sugars into the products we target,” Christophe Schilling, the CEO and founder of Geno, told CNBC.

“Plants take up CO2 from the air, and with sunlight providing energy, convert that into sugars, which can be collected and then fed into a Geno process,” he said. According to Schilling, the biomanufacturing process uses fermentation to create the same nylon precursor ingredient, which Lululemon says offers the same feel its customers have come to expect.

woman mint shirt and black shorts holding a bar, with animations of plants around her
Lululemon x Geno shirt // Image courtesy of Lululemon

“We’re proud that this partnership is disrupting the $22 billion dollar nylon market, and with Lululemon, we will be accelerating the sustainable materials transition at scale – and this is only the beginning,” Schilling said in a statement.

Geno may be Lululemon’s first investment in a sustainable materials company, but it’s not its first trip down the green runway.

In February 2022, the company launched two products — a meditation and yoga mat bag and a barrel duffel bag — made out of mycelium-based unleather from Mylo, a company that has made similar products for companies like Adidas, Stella McCartney, and most recently Ganni, a label striving to make virgin animal leather a thing of the past,

Another fashion giant, Zara also has a new partnership with Circ, a company that has a technology capable of recycling polycotton, which Circ’s CEO and cofounder Peter Majeranowski, says is the “most difficult type of textile” to recycle. “When you take a synthetic fiber like polyester and purposefully engineer it with a natural fiber like cotton it's very tricky and challenging to separate them and recycle both into new textiles,” Majeranowski said in a video announcing the launch.

So how did Circ crack the code? As the company says via its website, “In layman’s terms, we’ve figured out how to use water, pressure, and responsible chemistry to recover the Earth’s ingredients from man-made products to make incredibly useful new materials.”

“Your clothing today seamlessly becomes your clothing tomorrow — without taxing our nature’s limited resources,” the company explains.

According to Zara’s Monday announcement, the partnering companies created a collection featuring lyocell garments made with 50% recycled polycotton textile waste and polyester garments with 43% recycled polycotton textile waste.

a woman wears a copper halter top and pants
Zara x Circ set // Image courtesy of Zara

The amount of recycled content is not 100% because as Majeranowski explained via Vogue Business, recycled fibers often lose some of their strength during the recycling process, so they need to be blended with virgin fibers to create a finished fabric.

However, he told the publication that Circ’s recycled fibers are capable of being turned into a 100% recycled fabric.

Where Lululemon is making sustainable athleisure mint shirts and shorts, Zara is going the dressier route with its coppery burgundy shorts and pants/halter top button-up sets.

According to Majeranowski, “This is the first-time recycled polyester and lyocell clothing manufactured from polycotton textile waste is in the hands of consumers, and we are taking important steps towards making circularity the new standard.”

In a statement, he added, “Circ and Zara want to create a new future in which the garments hanging in our closets are made from recycled materials that can then be recycled over and over again.”

Via Vogue Business, Majeranowski said that a lot of companies are making environmental promises, but solutions aren’t scaled yet. Still, demand will rise, and companies will have to deliver. To be at this scale is major for a startup like this, he told the publication, and while critics will naturally question Cicr’s partnership with a company like Zara, which has been guilty of greenwashing in both the past and recently, he says its key for Circ’s accessibility.

“We don’t want circularity to be only for high price points, we want circular to be truly accessible to everybody,” he said. Items from the Zara x Circ capsule collection are priced at $69.90, a similar price point of $78 for the men’s version, and $68 for the women’s.

“To change an industry this big and this old, you need to work with the largest players,” Majeranowski said.

Just like Lululemon is invested in Geno, the partnership between Circ and Zara follows an investment from the Spanish multinational company, adding to the textile recycler’s $25 million Series B extension funding round in March, Axios reports.

a close up of the button down shirt tied at the bottom and shorts
Zara x Circ set // Image courtesy of Zara

According to Inditex, Zara’s parent company, this is the first time Inditex has made an investment of this kind within its Sustainability Innovation Hub (SIH). The Hub aims to boost technological innovation and improve product circularity and most recently partnered with the circular textile waste startup Evrnu to transform 100% cotton textile waste into its NuCycl Lyocell, a fully recyclable fiber it can make with cotton, nylon, and polyester.

However, the main difference between this and Zara’s Circ partnership is that Circ is tackling difficult blends of fabric, rather than 100% clothes of one fabric.

“This first-of-its-kind collection demonstrates that innovation in new fibers and collaboration with specialized experts are two key pillars in advancing the circularity of the textile industry,” Javier Losada, Inditex Chief Sustainability Office, said in a statement.

“Circ’s technology opens the door to effectively separate and recycle any blend of polyester and cotton – which is one of the most common textile blends in clothing.”


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