Before it was made into holiday dresses, the silky black fabric used in a new capsule collection from Zara started life as carbon emissions. At a steel mill in China, a startup called LanzaTech uses microbes to turn the factory’s captured emissions into ethanol, something that would usually be made from fossil fuels. The ethanol is then processed into monoethylene glycol, one of the components used to make polyester.
Earlier this year, Lululemon announced that it was experimenting with a version of the fabric to make its high-end yoga pants. Inditex, the fashion group that owns Zara, has also been working with the fabric. Zara’s new capsule collection is the first clothing to come to market using the technology. (Because polyester is made from only 20% monoethylene glycol, the new fabric’s climate impact is not eliminated, but it is reduced.)
LanzaTech compares its technology to a brewery—in the same way that yeast turns sugars into beer in steel tanks, the company uses bacteria in a patented process to ferment pollution into ethanol. At the steel mill, it uses carbon monoxide emissions that otherwise could have been burned and released as carbon dioxide. The same technology can be used at landfills and other large sources of emissions.
The ethanol can also be used to make other products. Swiss retailer Migros, for example, has already used it to make plastic bottles for smoothies and household cleaners. Unilever used it to make laundry pods and dish soap now in stores in Germany. A Swiss sports brand called On is beginning to use LanzaTech’s ethylene to make PVA, the foam found in running shoes.
All of this is happening at a small scale; the company’s pollution-based chemicals are, at this point, still more expensive than making the same products from fossil fuels. But that could change as the technology evolves, and some brands may be willing to pay more, for now, as they search for ways to shrink their carbon footprints.