Talk to Tricia Carey about sustainability, and it may well change how you think about denim and the environment forever. As the Director of Global Business Development at Lenzing Fibers, Tricia is a passionate advocate for sustainability in the denim market. She joins us today to talk about Lenzing’s long-standing commitment to the environment and to explain the importance of the circular economy, especially in apparel.


Firstly, who is Lenzing and what does Lenzing manufacture?  Well, their core activity is transforming trees into pulp and converting pulp into fiber. In this particular case, a fiber called TENCEL™ Lyocell. When TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers are blended with cotton fibers, the result is a denim fabric that has enhanced softness, enhanced strength, and an enhanced environmental footprint. 


“That’s the beauty of approaching product design from a sustainability perspective,” Tricia says. “You usually find ways to improve the environmental impact of a product whilst at the same time also improving its aesthetic and performance. It’s a myth that you have to sacrifice anything to make a product more sustainable.” 


According to Tricia, that’s how Lenzing developed its commitment to the circular economy. Lenzing started out making fibers from trees, a renewable resource, and that was pretty environmentally responsible back in the day. They could have stopped there but took another step down the sustainability path. They made sure that their wood came from responsibly managed forests. Next, Lenzing designed a patented, closed-loop production process that sent energy savings, water savings, and solvent recovery rates off the charts. And the spirit of innovation continues today.  

 “The interesting thing about innovation is that it feeds on itself,” Tricia told us. “For Lenzing and sustainability, once we started making our products and processes more sustainable, new opportunities become very obvious to us. We found them everywhere we looked. The ideas started flowing, and we put our resources into making the most promising ideas into commercial realities.”


Lenzing started considering the impact of its fibers on the environment once they had been made into clothing, especially in light of the staggering fact that close to 40 million tons of apparel end up in landfills each year. “We began to embrace responsibility for our products, even after they left our production facilities. That insight resulted in even more ideas.”


The Lenzing engineers worked to confirm that TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers were fully compostable and biodegradable in soil and water so that they return to Mother Nature without clogging up oceans or landfills. “Circular economy has become a key inspiration for us,” Tricia continues. “Out of it came our latest innovation, TENCEL™ Lyocell with REFIBRA™ technology.”


REFIBRA™ technology adds a new dimension of sustainability to TENCEL™ Lyocell.  “REFIBRA™ technology was the brainchild of Michael Kininmonth, a product manager at Lenzing, back in 2011. Michael was troubled by the apparel industry’s ever-growing burden on the environment. He envisioned maximizing the mantra of ‘Reduce/Reuse/Recycle’ in TENCEL™ Lyocell production. His idea? Extract cellulose from recycled cotton and meld it with wood cellulose. The Lenzing scientists figured it out, and Michael’s dream became what is perhaps the most sustainable fiber on the market today.”

In REFIBRA™ technology, industrial cotton scraps are collected and converted to raw cellulose. Cotton cellulose and wood cellulose are combined and become the raw material for the Lyocell manufacturing process. The use of recycled cotton not only saves those scraps from ending up in a landfill, but it also reduces the amount of virgin wood cellulose that is required. Because of Lenzing’s substantial resources, TENCEL™ Lyocell with REFIBRA™ technology is reliably available in commercial quantities and comes with Lenzing’s expert customer service as well.

 

It turns out that botanic origins, recycled feedstocks, and closed-loop production are just part of Lenzing’s sustainability equation. “I think the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that sustainability doesn’t happen in a lab, a plant, or a corporate headquarters. A company has no hope of truly making a difference unless it totally reimagines the way it works with its partners throughout the supply chain."


And that is one of the characteristics that clearly defines Lenzing in the denim market, one that Tricia works on every day.  Lenzing essentially views the supply chain as a continuous loop rather than as the traditional linear structure. Tricia thinks nothing of talking to a fashion designer one minute and a fabric mill the next. “I think we do that really well at Lenzing. We find like-minded companies—like 3x1—and together we are able to do more than any of us could do alone. Connecting the beginning of the supply chain with the end of the supply chain and all points in between results in rich conversations and actionable creativity.”


By connecting supply chain partners in new ways, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. New ideas emerge more readily, and results happen more quickly. “It’s been an amazing journey, and nothing has been more rewarding than seeing the denim market embrace sustainability. With long-time brand partners like 3x1, I am completely optimistic that we can make a difference now while we still can.”  

 As Tricia zoomed off to the airport, we threw a few more questions at her.

What can we expect to see from TENCEL™ in the next few years?
Tricia: More innovation in our REFIBRA™ technology—more recycled content, and more programs with brands and retailers that will increase consumer care and encourage them to put more sustainability into their closets.

 

What have you valued about the long-term relationship our two companies have enjoyed?
Tricia: It’s always easier to innovate with friends! When you share values and vision, so many wonderful things are possible. Scott [Morrison, 3x1 Founder]  is as committed to the environment as I am and shares my enthusiasm for improving denim sustainability without giving up a single thing people love about their jeans.


Learn more about Lenzing’s products at Lenzing.com