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Lenzing Wants to Do More Good with ‘Net-Positive’ Fibers, Ambitious Climate Targets

Lenzing doesn’t want to be less bad. Rather, it wants to generate more good.

Writing in its 2019 sustainability report, which it released Friday, the Austrian fiber giant describes the concept of “net benefit,” a way of conducting business that offers positive social and environmental impacts across the entire value chain. Net-benefit products, sustainability director Peter Bartsch explains, take a life-cycle approach that places collaboration, transparency and circularity at the fore of all decisions.

“When we developed our net-benefit concept, we said it’s not enough to look only into the footprint of our own fiber,” Bartsch told Sourcing Journal. “We also need to look into the downstream value chain and we have to look into the upstream value chain. And because we cannot change the world on our own, we need to partner with our suppliers.”

More than half of Lenzing’s fibers and technologies, including modal, Tencel with Refibra and Viscose Eco, are now classed under “net benefit,” though achieving this wasn’t easy and required subverting the status quo, Bartsch said.

Indeed, Lenzing has titled its report “Stand Up,” meaning against “business as usual.” The textile industry faces myriad roadblocks, including dependence on fossil fuels, wastefulness, declining natural resources and the fight against climate change.

“Addressing these challenges requires a different approach,” Bartsch said. “And we cannot overcome them by doing business as usual.”

Lenzing has had a banner 2019. It was named the No. 1 wood-based cellulosic producer in Canopy’s Hot Button report, signaling best-in-class performance for avoiding ancient and endangered forest fibers, producing innovative low-impact materials and showing leadership in supporting forest conservation efforts across the globe.

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And 2019 was also the year Lenzing began construction on a “carbon positive” pulp site in Brazil and a “carbon neutral” lyocell production site in Thailand, launched a reforestation and conservation project in Albania and built a new air purification and sulfur recovery plant at its Austrian site. These investments, Bartsch said, have not only strengthened Lenzing’s business model but also reflects its leadership role for the rest of the industry.

The company is also putting its money where its mouth is by placing a bonded loan linked to the company’s sustainability performance in order to finance its sustainability efforts. To date, it has raised more than 500 million euros ($533 million).

The same year, Lenzing became the world’s first producer of wood-based cellulosic fibers to pledge to cut its carbon emissions per ton of product by 50 percent by 2030. By 2050, the company wants to achieve climate-neutral production with zero net-carbon emissions by 2050.

All of Lenzing’s climate targets have been approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative, a partnership between CDP (formerly known as the Climate Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund to help businesses determine how much of their emissions they must eliminate to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

“To come up with such an ambitious target is a big step for any company,” Bartsch said. “You have to look into the future and find opportunities for absolute carbon reductions. I think this was a really great achievement for us to set.”

Another achievement he’s especially proud of is in the honing of Lenzing’s Refibra technology, which began by blending Tencel with post-industrial recycled textiles but broke through in 2019 with the incorporation of post-consumer garments.

While cast-off clothing can pose complications because of their disparate provenances and chemical compositions, Lenzing cracked the code with its patented process, Bartsch said. Now, up to 10 percent of the 30 percent portion of cotton waste in Tencel with Refibra can stem from secondhand garments.

That number will only increase as the technology becomes more sophisticated, he added. Eventually, he hopes that recycling textiles will be as simple and quotidian as recycling paper.

It’s not stopping with recycling, either. In 2021, Lenzing will be working with TextileGenesis to implement a blockchain-based “digital tracer” to boost the transparency of its fibers and their associated certifications. A tagging system can also circumvent fakes that take advantage of the Lenzing branding and reputation, Barstch said.

Though net profits for Lenzing have dipped from 185 million euros ($158 million) in 2018 to 114 million euros ($122 million) in 2019, Bartsch says the company is a “good example that sustainability pays off.”

“We have developed viscose technologies that are very clean, we have very high recovery rates that reduce emissions dramatically and we’re able to produce fibers in a sustainable way,” he said. “This shows our investments are paying off, but I also think we’re doing the right thing.”