People, planet, prosperity. Most successful textile and apparel companies these days are thinking about the three interconnected pillars of sustainability in some form or fashion. Many companies are embracing sustainability both for its intrinsic benefits as well as its external value, some are reluctantly complying with regulations and best practices, and a few sustainability skeptics are just hoping this whole thing is a fad. Just like the many other issues society faces these days, people will always disagree about whether sustainability is important and, if it is, how best to achieve it.
However, transparency, a growing aspect of sustainability, may tip the scale. The ongoing explosion of instant access information on traditional communication channels, the internet and social media is driving the rapid evolution of transparency—ready or not. Transparency will be demanded by company stakeholders, regulators, customers and consumers and soon will be the norm rather than the exception to the rule.
For companies eager to share their sustainability stories, transparency is a good vehicle. Transparency helps them reach like-minded customers. For those late adopters and avoiders of sustainability, transparency may force them to create the programs that inquiring minds expect to find in their Google searches and social media posts. And that, too, is a good thing.
Transparency is important because Millennials and Gen Xers want to know more about the products they buy but are slow to trust, and rarely accept, claims at face value. This sentiment is a backlash against early greenwashing, the financial crisis and the many other examples of corporate misbehavior they have witnessed. Now if a company makes a claim, people want to confirm it for themselves. Transparency facilitates information gathering and the purchase decision validation that people seek.
The seeds of transparency started sprouting in the 90’s. Coming out of the 80’s when business was strictly business, companies in the 90’s started to focus on shareholders, which meant sharing information to grow investment. The globalization that growth required made the world a smaller place and started to break down communication barriers. Attention shifted to stakeholders in the 2000’s and, fueled by internet accessibility, information availability and demands escalated. The more companies shared (and then it was usually only the good news), the more people wanted to know. Through the 2010s to today, some degree of structure to transparency has emerged. The mechanisms of transparency and the vocabulary have crystalized: sustainable supply chain, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, certification, environmental consideration, accountability, verification, and so on.
When I started working in business development of TENCEL™ Lyocell in the late 90’s, it was five years after the initial commercial production of the fiber in Mobile, Alabama. The fact that the new fiber was made from renewable wood wasn’t promoted as a distinguishing attribute. In those days, no one asked us about raw materials or process chemicals or resource utilization. And, frankly, we didn’t publicize that information either. Occasionally, I would add an apologetic slide to the end of my presentation about the trees and hope that no one asked a question. Sometimes I would get a letter or, at that time, a fax from a consumer asking if we were cutting down the rainforests. I wasn’t always sure how to respond to those “tree hugger” letters, not because I was hiding anything but because I didn’t know the answer. Looking back, those letters started our sustainability journey and fueled our own transparency evolution.
Fast forward to today. Lenzing makes a million tons of fiber (viscose, LENZING™ Modal, and LENZING™ Lyocell) in six facilities around the world. We maintain information on tree species, forest locations, and certifications. We track the energy and water usage, chemical management, and employee safety performance at our facilities. We can embed fiber identification into the fiber production to track throughout the supply chain and provide fabric certification through our branding program, which this year became totally digital for the supply chain. We have a sustainability department with five people who have input into corporate decisions. We produce a public annual Sustainability Report on our achievements, our progress against sustainability goals, and the areas where we need more work. As a company, we shifted from just reacting to those tree hugger letters to raising the issues ourselves.
Asking those tough questions and finding the answers has helped Lenzing in many ways. We can identify priorities more efficiently through a sustainability lens. Our strengths and weaknesses are easier to address. We can get ahead of the curve to provide information proactively, answering questions before they are even asked. We build comprehensive sustainability stories that engage and educate and unify all aspects of our company. We control a huge chunk of our sustainability destiny. Do I still get letters? Absolutely. And even more than before, thanks to email and social media and smart phones. The difference is that now I welcome the questions and typically know the answers.
Transparency also fuels collaboration. In order to answer questions internally, most textile companies must involve the whole of their supply chain, down to vendors and suppliers and up to customers and the end consumers. Ignorance is no longer bliss in a transparent world. At Lenzing, we actively sought out opportunities to work with other companies. We opened our doors to independent certifiers like Oeko-Tex, the USDA, and the FSC. We reached out to customers like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Levi’s to support their sustainability programs. We became avid sustainability advocates within industry groups like Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Textile Exchange, ZDHC, and the denim industry. We have expanded our perspective to engage with other groups like Canopy and Changing Markets who look beyond textiles.
Now we even develop fiber innovations specifically to reduce environmental impact. In 2017 we started production a fiber called, TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ lyocell which uses post- industrial cotton scraps to make a new fiber. This uses the closed loop production process of TENCEL™, as well as a fiber identification for transparency. Lenzing was the first company to commercially produce a man-made cellulosic fiber from waste. Now after one year there are six global brands selling apparel with REFIBRA™ Lyocell.
Another important lesson gleaned from Lenzing’s evolution of transparency is that the quest never ends. Things that are not on the radar can become issues overnight. For example, the looming environmental crisis of marine litter caught our attention because we are concerned about circular economy. We have subjected TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers to a full battery of tests to confirm that they can be safely composted. In specific response to marine litter concerns, we went one step further to verify harmless degradation in water as well with a certification. We’re even working on products to replace plastic fishing lines and nets to actively reduce the main cause of marine litter. We put that chapter of our sustainability story out to share. While I have not been asked about marine litter yet from the apparel industry, it’s only a matter of time. And I am ready for those letters.
Tricia Carey is the director of global business development apparel at Lenzing Fibers. Tricia is also the vice chair at Textile Exchange and is a member of the FIT Textile Department Advisory Board.