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Walmart Teams Up With Rubi Labs To Create Cellulose Yarn

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Technology is providing innovative solutions to combat the worrying effects of fast fashion on the climate. Some companies have developed enzymatic processes that break down PET and polyester materials into new clothing. 

There are already examples of this, such as Patagonia using discarded ocean plastic for swim trunks, Fair Harbor making board shorts and bikinis out of upcycled water bottles, and some companies even using human hair to make sweaters. 

Walmart recognizes this trend. It’s forming strategic partnerships dedicated to reducing its impact from fashion waste. 

The big-box retail giant is teaming up with California startup Rubi Laboratories to test carbon-capture technology that turns carbon dioxide (CO2) into yarn. Rubi will capture greenhouse gases from Walmart’s supply chain and convert them into cellulose. The technology mimics a biochemical process that occurs in trees. The cellulose creates a lyocell yarn for textiles.

Photo Courtesy Janko Ferlic

After product testing, Walmart plans to use the yarn in an apparel line. Rubi has successfully created lyocell yarn but has yet to do it at scale. 

The company was founded by twin sisters Leila and Neeka Mashouf. They are nieces of Bebe founder Manny Mashouf, bringing a family history of fashion into their research. Their company earned recognition for developing a process that created a viscose, a synthetic alternative to silk, also called Rayon. It is the third-most used textile fiber in the world, according to Good on You, the ethical fashion advocacy group.

Normally, Rayon would be created with wood pulp, which has been cited for poor wood sourcing. Conversely, Rubi’s system uses captured carbon. The company says its enzymatic process is water and land-neutral.  

The Mashouf sisters have attracted some notable investors. Venture capital firm Talis Capital reportedly invested around $8.7 million in Series Seed funding.

Patagonia’s Tin Shed Ventures, Collaborative Fund, H&M Group, and Necessary Ventures also contributed, totaling $13.5 million in investments.

“What we really liked about Rubi was that if we look at the textile space, there’s cotton as the most-used material, but it’s really hard to remake that with synthetic biology,” Cecilia Manduca, an associate at Talis Capital explained to TechCrunch. “Then there’s polyester, which is a great material, but it’s a kind of plastic and a fossil fuel-based material.” 

Rubi claims it can turn 100% of CO2 capture into its reactors. Enzymes then eat at carbon emissions, leaving behind no waste, just the end product.

“We know we’re part of something bigger,” Neeka Mashouf, Rubi’s CEO, said in a press release. “The world desperately needs affordable and scalable solutions rooted in cutting-edge science and technology to reinvent the ways industries operate.”

Photo Courtesy Rubi Laboratories

Andrea Albright, Walmart’s executive vice president of sourcing, got to tour the Rubi facility. She noted how the science was “exciting” and believed it could contribute to Walmart’s company-wide sustainability goals. The retailer started a strategic pilot program with Rubi. The goal is to examine how this technology can work at a larger scale when integrated with Walmart’s supply chain.

Walmart already has a few sustainability efforts in place as they hope to hit zero emissions across global operations by 2040.

The retailer will utilize renewable energy, switch to electric vehicle fleets, and use low-impact refrigerants in its supply chain. Adding a sustainable fashion line wasn’t probably on the top of the list, but it was a good add-on nonetheless.

While Rubi doesn’t solve what to do with clothes post-purchase, the laboratory’s carbon-capture cellulose could help reduce emissions from Walmart’s overall operations while creating something sustainable. If the pilot program is successful, we may see the apparel in Walmart stores and online by late 2024.

“Walmart’s ability to mobilize positive impact across its supply chain of diverse U.S. partners could be massively impactful in scaling our production and delivering on our commitments,” Neeka Mashouf said in a statement. “We’re thrilled to partner with them.”

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