Covalent Carbon Capture Sunglasses Offer Vision of Fashion’s Future

Leather is a controversial matter, and not just because cows have to die to produce it. Or because leather tanning requires toxic chemicals like chromium, which is sometimes discharged directly into local waterways. No, the worst part about leather, according to environmental activists, is that it is a major contributor to climate change.

Animal agriculture is believed to be responsible for 14.5 percent global greenhouse gas emissions. Kering, the luxury fashion conglomerate that owns leather-loving brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, said in its Environmental report 2020 that the production and processing of leather is by far the largest contributor to its carbon footprint. And when the Amazon was on fire in 2019, the flames were blamed at least partially on livestock breeding operations, and several major brands including H&M and Timberland have promised stop sourcing leather from the region.

The alternatives available to the fashion industry, however, fossil fuel-based polyurethane and PVC, leave much to be desired. All plant-based vegan leathers, which manufacturers claim emit less greenhouse gases during production, are also blended with synthetic petroleum products, making them more harmful than their marketing suggests. “Cruelty-free”. With all the press around prototype products from Adidas and Stella McCartney, you’d be forgiven for thinking you could already buy a lab-grown leather wallet or Stan Smith mushroom-leather sneakers, but these materials still struggle to fit. be commercially viable.

At the moment, there is only one truly innovative and eco-friendly vegan “leather” that you can click to shop directly on the internet. AirCarbon, a carbon-free material made from methane-nibbling marine organisms, hit the market a year ago in the form of sunglasses, wallets, and laptop and phone cases.

In an industry known to create a buzz on even the most mundane products (another recycled water bottle jacket, are you tempted?), The reception of the new brand, called Covalent, was surprisingly muted. This could perhaps be attributed to the CEO of the startup making AirCarbon, Mark Herrema of Newlight Technologies, who brought the cooler California vibes to our interview. When I noticed his relaxed manner, he laughed and pointed out that he had been working on the creation of this material for 18 years. And anyway, with six rounds of fundraising under his belt, the last one for $ 45 million, he’s well past the hype stage and entered the “just do it” stage.

Literally: In August, Newlight announced a partnership with Nike to explore the uses of AirCarbon. Nike, who says 70 percent of its emissions are wrapped in its materials, is one of the many major fashion brands that have engaged reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30% by 2030.

Herrema said the idea that would eventually lead to AirCarbon came to him while he was at Princeton in the early 2000s. He was studying politics, but certain digestive issues prompted him to start researching diets and food system. He discovered that a cow can burp up to 500 liters of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, enters the atmosphere every day. He imagined the market value of this methane – over $ 20,000 a year from a large farm – evaporating into the air and saw a business opportunity.

It turns out that a hundred years earlier, scientists had discovered that there are organisms that eat greenhouse gases and store this energy inside their cells in the form of a molecule called polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB. “And this molecule, when you isolate it, it turns out it’s fusible,” Herrema explains. This means that it can be molded into all types of materials in any color, from sheets of leather to fibers and solid shapes like sunglasses.

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