Lululemon Raises the Game with Its New Plant-Based Leggings

Photo features someone practising yoga wearing Lululemon athleisure clothes. Lululemon is launching plant-based leggings.

It’s official: plant-based leggings are coming to Lululemon Athletica.

The activewear giant (known widely as simply Lululemon) has partnered with San Diego-based biotechnology company Genomatica to switch from conventional nylon to a version made from plants.

Known for its durability, strength, and breathability, nylon is popular among athleisure and sportswear brands, but it has a downside.

Nylon is made from crude oil-derived plastic, so its production emits significant levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And we’re not just talking about carbon dioxide emissions, but nitrous oxide emissions, which are 300 times more damaging than the former. (It’s linked with a multitude of environmental problems, including acid rain and water nutrient pollution.)

Photo shows a person exercising while wearing Lululemon athleisure clothes. Lululemon is launching plant-based leggings.
Lululemon’s new plant-based leggings incorporate Bio-nylon, a sustainable nylon. | Lululemon

Bio-nylon could cut Lululemon’s emissions

Genomatica’s Bio-nylon, however, could cut these emissions by 90 percent, the company’s CEO Christophe Schilling told Fast Company. (Although, as the publication points out, no official direct comparisons between Bio-nylon and conventional nylon have been released.)

If this statistic is proved true, Bio-nylon could have an enormous impact on the multi-billion dollar global nylon industry. According to Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald, the two companies hope to influence others to make more sustainable swaps in their supply chains.

“Our partnership with and investment in Genomatica demonstrates our commitment to be a leader in creating products that help build a healthier future for ourselves, for our communities, and for our planet,” McDonald said, before reiterating Lululemon’s sustainability goals. By 2030, the brand aims to make all of its products with sustainable materials.

As well as Genomatica, Lululemon has invested in mushroom leather brand Mylo and partnered with LanzaTech. Headquartered in Illinois, the carbon capture company is developing fabric made with recycled carbon emissions.

Is Bio-nylon biodegradable?

But while Lululemon is undeniably making progress in its journey towards sustainability. It’s not quite there yet. One drawback of Bio-nylon is that it is not biodegradable. 

Although it is made from plants, Genomatica’s version has the same molecular structure as conventional nylon. This structure impacts the material’s biodegradability.

Across the activewear industry, brands are struggling to eliminate non-biodegradable materials. Even the few leggings on the market made with biodegradable fabrics like Tencel (made from wood pulp) often also contain a percentage of synthetic fibers like elastane, which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade.

The wider fashion industry has the same problem. In July, popular watchdog Instagram account Diet Prada posted an image of a pair of stretchy jeans that had been thrown in the compost bin. While the cotton in the jeans had decomposed, the synthetic fibers, like Spandex or elastane that provided stretch, remained. (The experiment was carried out by permaculture experts Graham King and Meg McGowan.)

McDonald recognizes that there is still much work to be done in terms of creating sustainable products that can limit emissions and biodegrade.

He told Fast Company: “We’re actively exploring other sustainable materials, including natural, biodegradable ones. But 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.”

Lululemon hopes to slot Bio-nylon into its supply chain before the end of 2021.