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Why Recycled Material Use is Key to Sustainable Viscose and Lycocell Production

With the use of viscose and other wood-based fibers in apparel growing, more must be done to increase the amount of recycled materials in their production.

Executives in the field, speaking on a webinar dubbed “An Action Plan for Next Generation Fibers,” sponsored by the United States Fashion Industry Association, discussed what their companies are doing to achieve that goal as a forest conservation measure and a way to keep textiles out of the waste stream.

“With the concept of harvesting your closet, now our raw material supplier is the consumer instead of using trees and that’s just a totally different way of working,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development at Lenzing. “We have to get out of the mindset that we are a supply chain because a supply chain is only ‘I’m a fiber maker selling to a yarn spinner.’ We have to think more as a supply network.”

When Lenzing started working with organizations involved in circularity, it saw some of the missing holes in its supply network, Carey said.  Now, she added, the company is focused on getting post-consumer clothes to collectors and sorters for recycling back into fibers.

“It’s about designing into circularity–we need to know what dyes and other treatments are being used for these textiles,” Carey said.

She agreed with Nicole Rycroft, executive director of forestry conservation group Canopy, who said the textile industry needs major investments to establish new mills and machinery to process and produce alternative materials like Lenzing Refibra techology that takes cotton and other fabric scraps and materials and mixes them with wood-pulp-based materials to make recycled fibers.

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Rycroft, who said viscose production is expected to double in the next several years, noted that her organization’s “CanopyStyle Care Instructions,” a snapshot of viscose producer progress, gave No. 2 manufacturer Lenzing and No. 3 Aditya Birla green jackets for their environmental initiatives, while top producer Sateri got a red jacket due to its sourcing of wood from “plantations situated on high carbon peat lands,” whose vast stores of carbon are at risk of being released into the atmosphere by global warming and climate change.

Lenzing received kudos for being the first to market a lyocell fiber containing 30 percent recycled cotton waste and its “visions to achieve 50 percent post-consumer recycled material by 2024.” Canopy lauded Birla for “taking leadership in forwarding conservation planning in Canada’s Boreal Forest by exploring science-based scenarios with targets of 50 percent to 70 percent protection.”

Dilip Gaur, managing director of Birla’s pulp and fiber business, noted that Birla has launched a product line containing 20 percent pre-consumer recycled materials and has committed to reach 50 percent by the end of this year.

“In order to scale up, we have to be able to work together through our supply network in a way that is healthy for everyone,” Carey said. “Right now it seems that innovation and the burden lies more on” the fiber producers and that needs to be balanced out more within the supply network that goes through to mills, brands and retailers.

Rycroft called for the industry to pilot and early adopt next generation solutions for increased use of recycled content in viscose and lyocell products, and for governments to shift policies to support research and development of new materials and to finance conservation efforts.

Commenting on the upheaval of 2020, Patrik Lundstrom, CEO of Re:newcell, a recycler of textile waste into a new raw material for apparel, said, “if anything it has accelerated the shift to next-gen materials.”

“We had a launch with H&M at the beginning of Covid, so all the physical aspects were canceled, but it just took off online,” Lundstrom said. “There’s an acceleration of interest of people wanting change.”

Carey said there has also been increased interest at Lenzing in more sustainable materials, with one customer tripling their order of Refibra.

“We do see a lot of activity within the denim industry,” she said. “They seem to understand the most how to work with Refibra technology. So, we continue to see more increases and more collaborations.”

The executives said the need to communicate more with consumers is vital, with Carey noting that a Lenzing social media campaign called “Make it Feel Right” to make consumers think about how their clothes are made has gotten more than 90 million views.