2024, Best Practice

Scaling Biobased Nylon with Geno and lululemon

Geno is a material innovation company that combines bioengineering, computer modeling, and industrial engineering. In recent years, the company has teamed up with Canadian athletic apparel brand lululemon to move toward biobased solutions for nylon which would otherwise be derived from fossil fuels. Here, Textile Exchange speaks with the two companies to uncover the importance of their partnership in bringing biobased nylon to commercial scale.

Coming together to fill knowledge gaps

Nylon makes up a substantial portion of lululemon’s material portfolio, presenting a vital opportunity for the brand to address its environmental impacts at the product level.

That’s why, in 2021, the athletic apparel brand started working with Geno – a material innovation company that devises innovative ways to produce materials otherwise made from fossil fuels. Together, the pair set out to create a plant-based nylon-6 that could replace its petroleum-based counterpart, delivering the same feel and quality.

“Our goal was to develop novel technology from lab scale to commercial readiness,” explains Lisa Kennedy, SVP of Strategic Partnerships at Geno. And that’s exactly what they did. In 2023, Geno’s plant-based nylon made its first consumer-facing appearance in a collection for lululemon.

The companies found that their respective areas of expertise could form a mutually beneficial partnership, mixing Geno’s knowledge of the production of monomers with lululemon’s expertise in making nylon garments.

“True collaboration is realized when a developmental or commercial hurdle occurs in either company’s area of expertise and the partners work together to find innovative ways to close the gap,” adds Lisa Kennedy, SVP of Strategic Partnerships speaking to the value of filling respective knowledge gaps through partnership.

“True collaboration is realized when a developmental or commercial hurdle occurs in either company’s area of expertise and the partners work together to find innovative ways to close the gap.”

Fostering collaboration in a complex supply chain

To help bring the plant-based nylon-6 to commercial scale, Geno teamed up with Aquafil, the Italian company behind ECONYL® recycled nylon. Together, they created the building blocks for biobased nylon-6 and converted them into nylon-6 polymer for use in serval applications, including textile fibers.

Since Geno’s polymer is functionally similar to conventional nylon-6, it can be used as a drop-in replacement in large-volume material markets. For lululemon, this enabled the company to maintain consistency with its existing vendors, supply chain, and most importantly, its current products.

Speaking to the importance of integrating innovative raw materials into existing supply chains, Patty Stapp, Senior Vice President, Global Raw Materials at lululemon says “Ultimately, the key to changing a system lies in establishing meaningful and strategic relationships with your supply chain partners.”  

“If you want your innovation partners to succeed, it’s essential to assist them in cultivating long-term relationships within your supply chain, leveraging partners you already know and trust.”

Understanding the impacts of plant-based feedstocks

While taking the plant-based nylon-6 polymer to finished product may have been a smooth transition, one of the key challenges for Geno is to make sure the plant-based feedstock used to create nylon-6 is sustainably sourced. This is a continuous learning process, and as for any land-based raw material, this means understanding how it is grown, and how it might impact climate and nature.

For Geno, the production of plant-based nylon 6 remains in the pre-commercial phase and the company is not yet procuring and sourcing its own sugar-based feedstocks at a large scale. However, this is something it is actively working towards. In the meantime, it has taken measures such as international sugar label audits to understand the potential environmental and social risks of different feedstocks like corn and sugar beet, and then creating a strategy to account for these risks.

For lululemon, the aim is to apply lessons it has previously learned from cotton, especially regarding the importance of farm-level visibility and working to understand farmers’ needs, priorities, and regional nuances.

A further common challenge with producing materials from plant-based feedstocks is that they don’t always fit neatly into existing standards, test methods, and terminology. This has led the partners to work towards laying these foundations themselves.

As noted by Stapp: “When we produce a garment from recycled polyester, there are established practices for discussing and making claims about it.” But to scale innovative solutions like biobased nylon at large, there needs to be a collective industry effort to develop appropriate traceability mechanisms and sustainable certification criteria.

“Ultimately, the key to changing a system lies in establishing meaningful and strategic relationships with your supply chain partners.”

Laying the groundwork for widespread adoption

Both Geno and lululemon are taking a long-term outlook when it comes to supply chain resiliency to make sure that their efforts can facilitate widespread industry transformation.

Beyond the initial application of biobased nylon, the two companies share a long-term vision of creating meaningful change in the nylon market at large. Geno describes the partners’ approach as “committed to long-term impact, while still sprinting for short-term progress.”

To scale to a commercial level, establishing commercial off-take partners and securing investment is key. lululemon has been supporting Geno through funding application processes, with a view for commercial supply to be available for its use in the near term.

Ultimately, the companies see industry collaboration as vital to enabling the adoption of more sustainable alternatives for synthetic materials like nylon. “We want to share our learnings, failures, and lessons along the way to shorten the learning curve for other companies,” summarizes Sasha Calder, Geno’s VP of Impact.