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Sarah Platkin | November 2, 2022

Many college students, including us here at Vanderbilt University, feed into the fast fashion industry, whether we know it or not. We constantly buy articles of clothing for going out and themed functions. Our closets are filled with items of clothing that we have only worn once, or potentially haven’t even worn at all. 

It might come as a shock to learn that the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world. The industry runs on nonrenewable resources and excessive amounts of water, while also contributing to landfills and excessive greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, fast fashion companies often utilize sweatshops and unethical labor practices, which disproportionately affect traditionally marginalized communities. 

There has been a recent shift among younger people towards buying second hand clothing at thrift stores such as Buffalo Exchange and long-lasting staple neutral clothing items. Even so, the burden of fast fashion continues to increase due to fast-changing fashion trends and the overwhelming availability of cheap clothes online. 

Luckily, a few companies are rising to the occasion and striving to provide consumers with more ethical and environmentally-friendly clothing options. These companies are attempting to reduce the environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry by producing their clothing and jewelry in a much more sustainable way: by putting the carbon dioxide in our air to use.  

One of these companies is Zara, a popular fashion company infamous for their fast fashion. It seems that they are looking to change, however, since now they are turning CO2 into fabric for their new sustainable little black dress line. According to an article from Ethos published in December of 2021, the company has partnered with an environmental-tech company, LanzaTech, in order to produce these sustainable carbon negative fabrics. 

LanzaTech previously had short term partnerships with Lululemon and L’Oreal. The company converts pollution into chemicals by attaching bioreactors to a specific emission source, such as a factory or powerplant. This technology uses a bacterial fermentation process, similar to the process of making alcohol. According to LanzaTech, this process creates a chemical called monoethylene glycol, which then accounts for 20% of the material in the fabric produced. The other 80% consists of purified terephthalic acid, which is not produced in the fermentation process. 

Zara is currently an extremely, if not the most, popular fashion brand for female college students. Their vast influence means that changes in their sustainability practices have the potential to encourage other large fashion brands to follow in their footsteps. However, while Zara’s new line is a huge step in the right direction, the line of sustainably-made clothing appears to be extremely limited. This indicates how the widespread implementation of this type of technology will require an immense investment. The investment would be worthwhile, however, since this technology provides better environmental benefits than the common use of transitional recycled fabric.

Zara is not the only company working to transform carbon dioxide, and neither is the fast fashion industry the only industry with this potential. A company known as Aether Diamonds produces diamonds by capturing and transforming atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions. 

The four steps used for synthesizing diamonds from carbon dioxide are explained on Aether’s website. They first extract carbon dioxide from the air before converting it into a hydrocarbon form (CH4). The hydrocarbons are put into a chemical vapor deposition reactor to grow.  Thierry, a plasma science and technology company, explains how the reactor works by using vacuums and heat to deposit carbon in extremely thin layers. Finally, the diamonds are cut, polished, and set into jewelry. 

The website includes a carbon footprint feature where shoppers can calculate how much carbon their diamonds would take out of the atmosphere, almost incentivizing their purchase. The carbon footprint is converted into an average American’s annual carbon footprint, in order for the public to more accurately conceptualize the huge impact of their purchase. For example, a one carat engagement ring on their site, totaling at just under $10,000, used 18K white gold and had a carbon footprint offset of 1.8 years. 

Aether’s commitment to the environment and ethical business practices shows in other aspects of the company. Clean energy is used for the chemical vapor deposition reactor and only ethically-sourced gold is used in their jewelry. Impressively, their prices are extremely competitive in the diamond industry despite competition from other companies that shy away from sustainable practices to keep their costs low. Moving forward, strategies of carbon capture like those used by Zara and Aether Diamonds may prove to be extremely beneficial as we face the climate crisis. Their mission to produce carbon negative products and have a positive effect on the environment is currently rare, but shows consumers that it’s possible. This is particularly important for growing cities such as Nashville, which was ranked as the least sustainable city in a list of 50 released in August of 2022 by ParkSleepFly. In addition, an article from the Tennessean states that Nashville’s recycling rate is 24%, which is 9% below the national average. The article also estimates that only 13% of household waste and 1% of construction waste is recycled, though it’s important to note that Nashville currently has extremely high construction rates due to the quickly increasing city population. In light of the current lack of sustainability in Nashville, it is the responsibility of Nashville’s citizens and students to educate themselves and each other and the downsides of our city and how to better use their purchasing power to support the environment.