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Case Study: Nike partners with Newlight Technologies to develop AirCarbon PHA-based fibers – but can PHA replace synthetic fibers?

Tiffany Hua, Senior Research Associate
October 28, 2021

Last month, Nike announced its partnership with Newlight Technologies to tackle PHA-based textile fibers, with the goal of decarbonizing Nike's products and reducing emissions. PHA has been notoriously difficult to commercialize, but especially in apparel and textile applications. Startups like Mango Materials and the now-defunct Bio-on have long tried to commercialize PHA-based textile fibers but have little to nothing to show for their efforts. Now, with the support of Nike, all eyes are on Newlight Technologies to pioneer a PHA-based fiber alternative. 

Both companies are participating in the Renewable Carbon Textiles Project with Fashion for Good, which aims to push forward the commercialization of PHA melt spinning technology over the next year and a half.

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USE CASE AND BUSINESS IMPACT

For Nike and Newlight's upcoming PHA fiber development, the focus has been on the low-carbon aspect of PHA fibers. However, developing a PHA fiber could present additional opportunities. For one, microfiber production from synthetic garments is a huge issue. If Nike were to take advantage of PHA's innate biodegradability, the fibers could lessen the impact of microplastics and the microfiber generation of its garments. Yet, in order to replace synthetic fibers, it is important that the PHA fibers perform. To accomplish this, it is unclear if the fibers will be 100% PHA or be blended with synthetic fibers. In the case of Newlight Technologies' spinoff Covalent, its leather material is still mixed with synthetic materials. Here, PHA's well-known biodegradability is not utilized, but the fashion brand has similarly emphasized the low-carbon aspect of its leathers through enticing carbon footprint tags.

Another consideration for Nike and Newlight will be end of life (EOL), as most bioplastics end up in landfills unless collected back by producers and brands. Newlight Technologies' spinoff Covalent takes back its AirCarbon leather accessories through its circular return program in order to properly dispose of them. Nike and Newlight Technologies will likely pursue a similar course of action to address EOL challenges.

#LUXTAKE

As these fiber technologies continue to develop, key questions remain: Aside from decarbonization, what is the value of PHA for textile applications as a biodegradable, nonrecyclable material? Do textile applications even make sense for PHA, and can it replace synthetic fibers? Low carbon footprint materials and fibers will continue to gain traction as decarbonization becomes a high priority for major apparel brands including Nike. However, it is critical that alternatives be suitable replacements with similar or equal performance and cost. When it comes to EOL, most textiles do not have a suitable EOL today, so this is less of a concern at the moment. More interesting will be the development of fibers that help to address the problem of microplastic accumulation in the environment. Regardless, PHA-based fibers are a long way from being realized. Clients should monitor the Renewable Carbon Textiles Project to gauge what progress is being made.

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