Could this party dress be a solution for pollution?
Zara brand launched a limited line of little black dresses made partly from carbon emissions on Monday.
And while it’s one little test for an industry known to spew a lot of emissions into the air as it swaps out retail trends at increasing speed, via so-called fast fashion, the technology represents a rethinking of consumerism. Beyond the supply-chain footprint, a makeover for materials is part of what some say will be necessary to stop Earth from heating up too fast and landfills from overflowing.
McKinsey research shows that the global fashion sector was responsible for some 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018, about 4% of the global GHG total. That’s roughly the same quantity of GHG per year as the economies of France, Germany and the U.K. combined.
The technology behind these LBDs comes from LanzaTech. It produces ethanol from carbon emissions through a process of fermentation, similar to how yeast converts sugar into alcohol. The carbon set aside for ethanol can be collected from industry, farming or households, and its use certainly isn’t exclusive to fashion. But in the case of Zara’s line, carbon emissions were collected from steel mills, and the resulting ethanol was used to make the fibers that create polyester yarn.
The four LBD styles, which retail for $69, will be sold online only.
“We have found a new pathway to recycle carbon emissions to make fabric,” said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren.
The next challenge is scaling the technology to keep the cost of materials down and spread its use to more products. The dresses are the first clothing to come to market using LanzaTech’s technology. Earlier this year, the company announced a collaboration with Lululemon
and a partnership with On
for running shoes, although those products have yet to hit shelves.
It’s also true that reused waste only makes up a portion of the garments. LanzaTech makes monoethylene glycol, or MEG, from ethanol (converting it to ethylene oxide and then MEG). MEG, together with purified terephthalic acid (PTA), makes polyester. Today PTA comes from fossil-fuel
byproducts, while 100% of the MEG can be created from recycled carbon. The final polyester contains 20% MEG and 80% PTA, so the garment has polyester made of 20% carbon emissions.
Illinois-based LanzaTech’s first commercial-scale gas fermentation plant has produced over 20 million gallons of ethanol, which is the equivalent of keeping over 120,000 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Holmgren spoke with MarketWatch recently to discuss a LanzaTech partnership with an Indian client. That campaign converted CO2 emissions and renewable electricity from plants in India into lipids and Omega-3–rich fatty acids, a nutritional food component that was part of an effort to curb food shortages. LanzaTech also says it was the first to convert industrial waste into jet fuel, which was used by Virgin Airways.
“We have to learn to use carbon that’s not buried in the ground,” Holmgren said then. “Let’s bend the curve and see emissions drop 5%-8% every year, whether with our technology or anyone else’s. If we’re going to use carbon, let’s use what’s above the ground.”