“The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency” said Greta Thunberg, environmental activist and Nobel peace prize nominee.
For many in the fashion industry, Greta’s statement is a difficult pill to swallow, but most understand that her words are reasonably true and that companies must react. Environmental stewardship has been gaining ground however, to be honest, it has derailed somewhat during the last two years, eclipsed by a survivalist mentality during retail’s battle with Covid. As the fashion industry enters 2022, with hope now lingering well beyond the horizon, responsible companies are gathering their remaining strength, rethinking supply chains, and analyzing where (and how) they plan to gather sustainable raw materials to be used in production.
It is estimated that 85 percent of our fashion items will eventually end up it a landfill. In fairness, some of the product is biodegradable, but much of it is not—and those garment components can take years to disintegrate. With China cotton now under fire (from the newly passed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act), companies sourcing product are attempting to diversify their product locations or changing their existing raw materials.
Keeping this new reality in mind, enter Austria’s Lenzing Group—an 80-year-old, two-billion-dollar megatextile company, that might not be on your radar, but should be. In 2021 Lenzing won the environmental CDP Triple Crown A Rating (which was only awarded to 14 companies worldwide). CDP is the gold standard for environmental reporting and Lenzing won the award with the three critical categories covering climate change, water security and forests.
If you are not familiar with the Lenzing name, you may be aware of their trademarked fiber called TENCEL, which is key to any discussion about sustainability. TENCEL is a biodegradable fiber, made from wood pulp, which also gives the feel and performance of a durable luxury fabric.
While no one wants to be late to the game, global brands like Levi’s, Eileen Fisher, Gap, H&M, J Crew, and Timberland are already well in-play. There are also new-comers (in the direct-to-consumer space) like Allbirds, Bearaby, Boyish, and MeUndies that are involved. What do these brands all have in common? — they are licensed partners of TENCEL branded fibers. By working with Lenzing, each brand is able to address one or more of their sustainability goals—such as improving environmental and social standards, including fair trade, water, chemistry, circularity, transparency and even forestry.
TENCEL fibers are grounded in responsible sourcing from certified and controlled wood sources with a fiber identification incorporating traceability. Additional verification can also be provided through a blockchain partner like Textile Genesis that has unique Fibercoins to trace the supply chain and even calculate the carbon footprint.
Technology is changing and needs to address the environmental vision of every brand. Regarding the key issues of the day, TENCEL has progressed in circularity and climate action. They have been upcycling cotton waste and combining it with wood pulp so that TENCEL can provide a textile-to-textile circularity option called, REFIBRA. Over the past 5 years, REFIBRA has resulted in the reduction of waste sent to landfills in the equivalent of four million knit tee shirts.
With the implementation of its science-based targets, the Lenzing Group is also actively contributing to the effort to combat problems caused by climate change. In 2019, Lenzing made a strategic commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions per ton (of product) by 50 percent by 2030. This also has led to a launch of the first wood-based cellulosic fiber to have zero carbon footprint.
Environmental impact and fabric innovation are key industry topics today, so it becomes an imperative to have a global organization that can service shifting supply routes. Lenzing currently has seven manufacturing facilities in six countries, and is the only wood based cellulosic fiber producer with a facility in the Americas.
Since 1992, TENCEL Lyocell has been produced in Mobile, Ala.. In this calendar year a new state-of-the-art lyocell plant will begin production in Thailand (in late Q1), as well as production of a new pulp mill in Brazil (in Q2).
Greta Thunberg called for a “system change,” because she understands that the world of fashion cannot possibly shift overnight. With that in mind, it’s time for the fashion world to take another look at all available resources.
Rick Helfenbein is the former Chairman, President and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is now a retail & fashion consultant. He appears for industry comment on CNN, CNBC, FOX, BBC, Newsy, and BLOOMBERG.
Tricia Carey is Director of Global Business Development at Lenzing and serves on the board of Accelerating Circularity Project and advisory committee for the Conscious Fashion and Lifestyle Network. She is also co-creator of the denim blog, Carved in Blue.