There was a time when it was incredibly unlikely that a Chinese steel mill and a Zara party dress would feature in the same sentence. But that era is over. The fast fashion giant’s new capsule holiday collection features fabric made with recycled steel plant carbon emissions.
In a process similar to brewing beer, carbon recycling startup LanzaTech captures emissions, before turning them into ethanol (the company is calling its version of the chemical Lanzanol) through fermentation. Next, with the help of its external partners India Glycols Limited and Far Eastern New Century, the Lanzanol is turned into low carbon monoethylene glycol, before it is converted into low-carbon polyester yarn.
In a market first, that polyester has then been used by Zara to create a new range of chic party dresses for holiday get-togethers. Lululemon has also been working with LanzaTech to create yoga pants.
According to Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech’s chief executive officer, working with Zara has allowed the startup to find a “new pathway to recycle carbon emissions to make fabric.”
If allowed to pollute the atmosphere, these carbon emissions would contribute to climate change by trapping heat, leading to increased global warming.
Is the new partnership enough to make Zara sustainable?
While the LanzaTech partnership is progress, Zara still has a long way to go in terms of reducing its environmental impact.
Owned by Inditex, the brand is one of the biggest clothing chains in the world and helped to spawn the fast fashion industry as we know it back in the 1990s. Now, largely thanks to the acceleration of this industry, one truckload of clothes is burnt or dropped off at landfills around the world every single second.
Zara alone produces 450 million items of clothing every year, and many of them are made from virgin polyester. The fabric not only contributes significantly to ocean microplastic pollution (almost 75 percent of the Arctic’s microplastics are thought to come from polyester) but when sat in the landfill, it could take up to 200 years to biodegrade. Even if it was created through recycled fossil fuels. (But it’s important to note that LanzaTech has stated in the past that if clothes made with Lanzanol are recycled at the end of their life, the startup can redo the fermentation process.)
Aside from polyester, Zara also uses other environmentally-damaging materials in its clothing, like leather. It was recently named in a report that connected a number of high profile brands with tanneries linked to deforestation in the Amazon.
The brand isn’t alone in its destructive practices, but it also isn’t alone in taking baby steps towards sustainability. In addition to LanzaTech, Lululemon recently partnered with San Diego-based startup Genomatica that creates a nylon-like material from plants. But again, the nylon is not biodegradable.
Earlier this year, Lululemon’s CEO Calvin McDonald acknowledged the complexities of new sustainable materials, but noted that the fashion world needs to use the innovation that is available now.
He said: “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.”