Progress is being made on “bio-nylon” — produced by Italian nylon yarn firm Aquafil and California-based biotechnology company Genomatica.
Since announcing their multiyear agreement two years ago and their intention to create the first bio-nylon product, one ton (about 1,000 kilograms) of the sustainable plant-based alternative to its crude oil-derived nylon is in the pilot stage.
“It’s an equivalent replacement, it’s the same molecule made in a better way,” Christophe Schilling, chief executive officer of Genomatica, said to WWD, speaking of the work to commercialize a process to make caprolactam, which is a primary ingredient in sustainable nylon.
According to Genomatica, more than 5 million tons of nylon-6 are produced today at a substantial environmental cost, and market insight reports such as Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Textile Economy point to resource constraints as a key motivator to look into renewable feedstocks. It’s clear why Schilling and team — but also brand partners such as H&M, sustainable outdoor brand Vaude and fabric manufacturer Carvico through its brand consortium Project Effective — are seeking an alternative.
Regarding the emissions conversation, Schilling said Genomatica is “not at the stage to quantify it with the precision of those types of claims,” adding that “the sustainability story around nylon is not just around GHG emissions to make that molecule.”
He points to the byproducts created from making conventional nylon as another reason for tapping technological innovation to find a better way — a better nylon that eliminates the wasteful byproducts by starting from a 100-percent renewable feedstock. The intermediate chemical is then converted into nylon-6 polymer chips and yarn that firms like Aquafil can use.
There are years ahead before bio-nylon can replace the over 80-year-old DuPont creation, the world’s first true synthetic fiber, especially in the slow-moving, entangled global apparel and textile industries.
“It does have a particular performance quality that is hard to match,” said Schilling, speaking of nylon. Genomatica has already commercialized products to make “better plastics, spandex and cosmetics,” and counts nylon on its list of its upcoming biotech-aided improvements.
WWD asked if there is an uptick in brands inquiring into sustainable raw material solutions, to which Schilling said: “Oftentimes the first thing [apparel brands] tend to think about is: ‘Is there a renewable material that I can introduce into my portfolio?’”
He cites a high price point for “novel materials” and restricted applications along the supply chain and downstream infrastructure as impediments to scaled adoption.
“That’s where the power of biotechnology has emerged,” said Schilling. “This could be the first real opportunity where there’s a sustainable beginning of life and end of life around a widely used, large-volume material.”
Genomatica is just one firm exploring the opportunity to bring more sustainable solutions to the fashion and apparel industry, but as apparel brands increasingly explore sustainable raw materials — the question remains as to how long before an option is viable.
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