How companies can source man-made cellulosics more sustainably

In conjunction with 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. The entire series may be found here.

Man-made cellulosics are regenerated fibers made from the dissolved wood pulp (“cellulose”) of trees. Viscose, lyocell, acetate and modal are all examples of man-made cellulosics. As a plant-based fiber, man-made cellulosics have the potential to be a more sustainable choice because 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 also can 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 man-made cellulosic is under review. This is in line with other work in the industry to tighten up sustainability criteria, including the development of guidelines for chemical processing and wastewater discharge by the group, Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC).

For now, it’s safe to say that of the man-made cellulosic options, lyocell is considered best in class as it is made in a closed-loop system that recycles most of the solvent used so that no chemicals enter the waste stream. Fiber producer Lenzing is a pioneer in producing man-made 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 man-made cellulosics on raw material sourcing practices. A number of recycled cellulose materials also are being launched that offer exciting alternatives to using virgin feedstocks.



How can companies level up their man-made cellulosics sourcing strategy?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy.

There are some key activities that top performers in the preferred man-made cellulosics category have in common. These should serve as inspiration for any companies that are looking to push their preferred man-made cellulosics programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.

1. Map suppliers

Given concerns related to deforestation, illegal logging and irresponsible plantation management, supply chain transparency should be a priority for companies using man-made cellulosics.

It is worth investing in tools that help shine a light on the origins of your man-made 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. 

2. 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 channeling 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 nonprofit 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 Martha Willis, environmental sustainability manager at M&S. “We recognized there are risks from hazardous chemicals in the man-made 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 ZDHC Task Team to develop a consistent, global methodology for addressing the environmental impacts of man-made cellulosics production. The company is also an active participant of Textile Exchange’s Man-made Cellulosic Fibers Round Table. With a collaboratively developed roadmap to work toward, M&S is not only able to better track its progress, but it also has been able to integrate learnings from these working groups into its internal processes. 


3. Collaborate for change

While converting to cleaner, closed-loop options such as 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 such as CanopyStyle and Forum for the Future’s visioning exercise, as well as actively engaging in topical discussions via Textile Exchange’s Man-made 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 has been essential aspects of its preferred man-made cellulosics strategy.

The company is a founding member of the CanopyStyle Leaders for Forest Conservation, run by nonprofit Canopy with the purpose to eliminate the use of man-made cellulosics sourced from ancient or endangered forests and to support the development of next-generation fibers made from sources such as agricultural residues and recycled textiles.

H&M group also has 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. Moreover, H&M 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 its 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 man-made cellulosic fibers more sustainable.”