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Thoughtful Innovation: The Path to Sustainability

The idea of innovation can seem daunting. Even the word innovation is often overused and misused. Everyone wants that earth-shattering invention that totally changes the world in a blink of an eye. However disruptive innovation rarely emerges from an “aha!” moment. Instead, they usually arise from thinking differently than we normally think and from learning. Creating a “big new idea” for your business requires innovative thinking, and innovative thinking requires the right kind of organizational environment. That is why innovation is so hard.

But meaningful innovation is mandatory. It’s necessary to survive, to respond to the changes we see in the market, in the environment, in society. If well and thoughtfully done, it is not only change, but it is also a driver of growth. What does it take to successfully innovate? It takes viable ideas and people who will champion those ideas every day. These idea-heroes need to understand how to bring an idea to life through an existing or new organization and they must have the resilience to overcome the many barriers that will be put in their way. After all, companies don’t innovate. People do.

Because innovation can eat up resources, it should be done thoughtfully. Starting with a viable idea, big or small, and following it through to fruition, no matter how long it takes. That seems more feasible than the earth-shattering idea model. When I look back over the history of innovation at Lenzing, I see that to be true. Twenty-five years ago, TENCEL™ Lyocell entered the market as “the New Age Fiber.” Today, TENCEL™ Lyocell has gained commercial success and is used by major apparel and home textiles brands around the world.

Sustainability, innovation, and transparency are all part of the Lenzing culture today but these characteristics emerged over time. It certainly didn’t happen in the blink of an eye! We evolved from being a fiber manufacturer that used renewable raw materials in the 80s to a vocal advocate for transparency and sustainability for the textile industry today. During those three or four decades, we have introduced substantial innovations that have made a positive impact on many sectors including denim. And, as a result, the way we do things at Lenzing is changing too.

Innovation, like sustainability, is a never-ending quest. You never reach the finish line. And also, like sustainability, innovation breeds innovation. Once innovation becomes a plank in your company culture, it’s really hard to avoid. Your employees get engaged and start offering ideas, your management starts listening to these new ideas and, before you know it, innovation has embedded itself in everything you do.

One of my favorite innovation stories is about the birth of TENCEL™ Lyocell with REFIBRA™ technology. The seed idea that became TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ was planted at Lenzing by Michael Kininmonth, one of Lenzing’s staunchest sustainability idea heros. Michael told me this story and I’ll share it with you.

Sometimes an idea for innovation emerges instantly, clear and defined. Sometimes an innovative idea takes a little while to ferment before it makes itself known. For Michael, the idea for TENCEL™ x REFIBRA was born from three separate impressions that came together over several years.

First, a story from 2011 is of innocent seabirds, being killed by human waste, so eloquently captured by Chris Jordan’s famous photograph of dead albatross chicks whose guts were filled to the brim with plastic. Although the birds live on Midway Atoll in the north Pacific, 2,000 miles from any substantial land, their isolation doesn’t save them from the global problem. The Laysan Albatrosses nesting there mistake the floating plastic for food and bring it back for their chicks who die eating it. This had a significant affect on Michael when he first learned of it. It was a grisly reminder of man’s perhaps unintentional but still lethal impact on the rest of the world’s living beings. He was sickened by the fact that unsuspecting parent birds fed their babies pretty pieces of garbage resulting in the death of the chicks. It gave him a lot to think about, both personally and professionally.

Pollution

Copyright Chris Jordan

The second dot in the TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ Lyocell  story was the publication of the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The outspoken style and the original thinking presented in the book gave Michael new ideas about circular economy and what Lenzing could do to reduce the amount of textile waste that is discarded every year. Of the 50 million tons of clothing discarded each year, 80 percent ends up in landfills; a reminder of the baby seabirds.

Finally, what sparked the notion of TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ was a comment by one of Michael’s R&D friends about trying to make cellulose fibers out of an old cotton towel. And eureka, that’s when the lightbulb illuminated for TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™: Reuse waste that would otherwise end up in landfills or in the oceans or in the stomachs of baby birds and create a new raw material for fiber production.

We all know that ideation is only the beginning of innovation. Bringing an idea to life is much, much harder and it takes a village! Lenzing needed to prioritize the idea of a TENCEL™ fiber made with recycled material. So, with collaboration, a lot of determination, and the resources of a major corporation, Lenzing launched TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ Lyocell, which incorporates upcycled post-industrial cotton scraps as a raw material.

Lenzing had a lot of decisions to make while developing REFIBRA™ technology. How much recycled content can we use? What happens to the fiber quality when we add recycled content? Where will we get the waste? How do our production processes need to change to accommodate a different raw material? Do the production process changes meet our environmental and social standards? Does the product meet our goals for circular economy? Is anyone going to buy it?  How do we make sure brands and retailers can retain their established supply chains? Can we make enough of it fast enough if we do generate demand? And, of course, will the market understand the value?

That’s where Lenzing’s engineering, manufacturing, business development and marketing capabilities came into play. We collaborated with some of the most influential mills and brands in the market, especially those who embrace sustainability as seriously as we do. We were able to get REFIBRA™ technology from idea to fruition, make it available in commercially viable quantities for our customers, and now after 18 months, consumers can purchase at retail from 11 global brands. That means there is less waste in landfills and more upcycled waste with a second life as new fibers. As brands have goals for circularity; Lenzing provides a solution.

Once you’ve created and put a product like REFIBRA™ technology into the market and observe it be embraced by brands, retailers, and most importantly, consumers, it enables you to envision many more significant innovation opportunities we have with this incredible fiber. We are working on increasing the recycled content of the pulp, as well as expanding the technology to other Lyocell fiber variants. Even more waste upcycled. Even more circularity. Even more sustainability. Even better for the planet.

Thoughtful innovation can lead companies to places they never thought they would go. It is not only about change, but also collaboration for growth. It is always asking “what if?” and dreaming of what is next. As Thomas Edison said, “We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at the present.”

Based in New York City, Tricia Carey is director of global business development for Lenzing’s denim market, building collaborations with the supply chain and brands. She is also vice chair at Textile Exchange and a member of the FIT Textile Department Advisory Board. 

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