(Photo Credit: Forest Stewardship Council)

How companies can source manmade cellulosics more sustainably

To celebrate the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. This article in the series focuses on manmade cellulosics.

Manmade cellulosics are regenerated fibers made from the dissolved wood pulp (“cellulose”) of trees. Viscose, lyocell, acetate and modal are all examples of manmade cellulosics. As a plant-based fiber, manmade cellulosics have the potential to be a more sustainable choice since they are renewable. However, the production process can contribute to deforestation if the wood used is not sourced responsibly. Converting the wood into pulp and the pulp into a fiber can also be a highly polluting process. 

As an organization, Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Textile Exchange’s definition of a preferred manmade cellulosic is currently under review. This is inline with other work in the industry to tighten up sustainability criteria, including Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)’s development of guidelines for chemical processing and wastewater discharge. 

For now, it’s safe to say that of the manmade cellulosic options, lyocell is considered best in class as it is made in a closed-loop system that recycles the majority of the solvent used so that no chemicals enter the waste stream. Fiber producer Lenzing is a pioneer in producing manmade cellulosics that can be considered preferred. Along with Aditya Birla and ENKA, the manufacturer has been awarded the highest placement in CanopyStyle’s Hot Button Report, which ranks the largest global producers of manmade cellulosics on raw material sourcing practices. There are also a number of recycled cellulose materials being launched which offer exciting alternatives to using virgin feedstocks.

Map suppliers

Given concerns related to deforestation, illegal logging and irresponsible plantation management, supply chain transparency should be a priority for companies using manmade cellulosics. It is worth investing in tools that help shine a light on the origins of your manmade cellulosics and ensure your supplier choices are aligned with yours on forest protection. It is important to map suppliers from forests and pulp mills to fiber factories, as well as proactively identify regional issues and monitor high-risk areas. Only if brands know where and from whom they are sourcing can they take meaningful action on deforestation.

Broaden focus from forest to factories

In addition to focusing on forest-level risks, brands also need to consider the chemical emissions and waste that result from viscose production, which can cause significant occupational health and safety risk to workers and contaminate surrounding communities. Solving issues at this stage might require that factories invest capital to upgrade processes and switch out viscose for lyocell where possible to reduce chemical risk. There is an opportunity for brands to accelerate improvements in this area by channelling their business to responsible suppliers. 

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: Retailer Marks & Spencer first published a Wood Sourcing Policy in 2010 that committed to zero deforestation from the production of all M&S products by 2020. It followed this up by aligning to non-profit Canopy with a “Protecting Forests Through Fabric Choices” commitment in 2015 and a “Man-Made Cellulosic Fibre Responsible Sourcing Policy” followed in 2018. “Over time, we progressed from addressing the risks of sourcing the raw material to a more holistic approach to review all the possible impacts of this fiber group,” said Environmental Sustainability Manager Martha Willis. “We recognized there are risks from hazardous chemicals in the manmade cellulosics supply chain, but when we started out there was no accepted industry standard to measure and monitor those risks.” So, M&S started collaborating with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)’s Task Team to develop a consistent, global methodology for addressing the environmental impacts of manmade cellulosics production. The company is also an active participant of Textile Exchange’s Manmade Cellulosic Fibers Round Table. With a collaboratively developed roadmap to work toward, M&S is not only able to better track their progress, but they have also been able to integrate learnings from these working groups into their internal processes.

(Photo Credit: Lenzing)

Collaborate for change

While converting to cleaner, closed-loop options like lyocell is a starting point, other efforts around deforestation and chemicals are needed as well. Leading companies are collaborating around solution-finding and getting involved with industry initiatives like CanopyStyle and Forum for the Future’s visioning exercise, as well as actively engaging in topical discussions via Textile Exchange’s Manmade Cellulosic Fibers Round Table. There is also exciting potential for cross-sector change through alignment with other sectors affected by deforestation, such as wood or leather.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: For Swedish fashion company H&M group, signaling commitment through industry pacts and collaborating with other companies have been essential aspects of their preferred manmade cellulosics strategy. The company is a founding member of the CanopyStyle Leaders for Forest Conservation, run by non-profit Canopy with the purpose to eliminate the use of manmade cellulosics sourced from ancient or endangered forests and to support the development of next-generation fibers made from sources like agricultural residues and recycled textiles. H&M group has also signed the Roadmap Towards Responsible Viscose and Modal Fiber Manufacturing initiated by the Changing Markets Foundation, which creates and supports campaigns that shift market share towards environmentally and socially beneficial solutions. The H&M brand was also the first to use a new lyocell fiber made partly from waste cotton — Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Lyocell fiber with REFIBRA™ technology, featured in their Autumn/Winter 2019 Conscious Exclusive Collection. “We have not done this alone,” said Madelene Ericsson Ryman, Environmental Sustainability Business Expert at H&M group. “It has been so important to team up with others in the industry to create the changes needed to make manmade cellulosic fibers more sustainable.”

Liesl Truscott is the Director of European & Materials Strategy at Textile Exchange, a global non-profit that works to drive industry transformation in preferred fibers, integrity and standards and responsible supply networks. In this role, she oversees Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index (MCI) and Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark (CFMB) program. By benchmarking the industry and providing actionable tools for improvement, Textile Exchange is pushing a race to the top. View the results of the 2019 Material Change Index and learn how you can participate here