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The Rupp Report

The Rupp Report: The Next Step To Sustainable Fibers (?)

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

The increased consciousness for the environment began some 20 years ago. Since then, many organizations and nongovernmental organizations have started campaigning for a healthier environment. In this context, the textile industry and mainly the producing sectors of the business were and are challenged to produce their articles in a more sustainable way. Even the Chinese government pays attention to this and has implemented rules in the last two five-year plans for a more sustainable finishing. "From cradle to cradle," "life cycle analysis" and "carbon footprint" are just a few key terms in this — one can say — marketing fight for understanding, acceptance and finally success of the products. To heighten the confusion, many organizations claim to have the key to success, but nobody knows which rules are the right ones.

A Hidden Controversy
In this rising global consciousness to support a sustainable production of textiles, fibers play an important role. For the neutral observer, it is extremely interesting to see what's going on in the fiber markets. Twenty-five years ago, the ratio between natural and man-made fibers was somewhat 50:50. These times are gone forever. Today, the market share of man-made fibers is heading to close to 73 to 75 percent of the global fiber consumption owing to the increased properties, technical textiles and, last, but not least, a growing world population. For quite some time, the producers of natural fibers, and here mainly cotton, tried to demonize man-made fibers. These times are, luckily, over too. Everybody agrees that one fiber can complement the other with inherent properties to build an even better product.

Viscose Is Booming
However, for the last one or two decades, there has been another fiber that is competitive to cotton: viscose, rayon, Tencel®, lyocell, or whatever it may be called. In the 1980s, viscose production was such a dirty job that many European producers stopped production because of soaring costs for a more environmentally safe production. Only Austria-based Lenzing AG remained as a global player and became the undisputed leader in the world, holding most of the international generic and brand names such as Lenzing Lyocell, Tencel, Modal® and others.

Viscose has enjoyed tremendous development over the last ten years. Virtually every year, a new fiber type has appeared on the market. And parallel with the development and the growing importance in the markets, the arguments for "clean production" became ever-more significant. And the marketing activities increased on both sides. Reduced water consumption and fertilizer usage, just to name two — the marketing strategy arguments are endless.

Dr. Susanne Jary, head of marketing, home textiles, mentioned at the Lenzing press conference held last week at Heimtextil 2012 that in the year 2000, 30 million tags were distributed for products made with Lenzing Modal. Today, more than 200 million tags are required. She also mentioned that the yield of cellulose from beech wood is said to be twice as much compared to cotton.

New Cellulose Fiber

The next step to a cleaner fiber was presented at the press conference: Jary announced the home textiles market introduction of Lenzing Modal Edelweiss®, mainly for terry fabrics. "Edelweiss" is the German name of an alpine flower, which is the symbol in the Alpine nations for cleanliness and purity. She explained that the so-called Edelweiss effect should explain and communicate the purity of this fiber. Lenzing said that "the botanic feeling can be incorporated into remarkable terry goods. Beech wood proliferates by rejuvenation so no reforestation or plantations are necessary. More than half of the wood used at Lenzing is harvested in Austria, and the remaining raw material comes from neighboring countries."

However, it is not only the fiber's eco-friendliness that makes it so compelling. The fiber's performance properties such as color brilliance, absorbency, and softness make terry goods of Lenzing Modal that are said to be especially appealing to consumers. Also, the colorfastness seems to be on a high level. Gradual fading or graying is said to be no longer an issue with terry fabrics made of Lenzing Modal.

Paper Background
Chlorine is a very aggressive agent for bleaching. The paper industry, for example, has been selling chlorine-free paper for years. And cellulose fiber is made from the same raw material as paper: wood pulp. So the idea was to produce a chlorine-free fiber, based on oxygen bleaching. The Edelweiss treatment is said to offer new technological and environmental standards for the entire cellulose fiber industry. The production process involves oxygen-based chemistry. It is more environmentally friendly than conventional production procedures. At the moment, Modal Edelweiss is the only Modal fiber to satisfy the highest environmental standards, Lenzing reports.

It is produced differently from the conventional Lenzing Modal fibers, but the properties, such as softness and color brilliance, are the same. The fibers process identically at all points in the textile chain. Jary added at the press conference that "the fiber plant in Lenzing Austria is the only one in the world which is fully integrated and has all production steps, from pulp to the fiber, perfectly under control throughout the entire process."

It seems that Lenzing did a good job and took a step toward more sustainable products. To go from the environmentally disastrous production processes in the 1980s to creating a chlorine-free cellulosic fiber type was a long way. Let's see if it will pay off.

January 17, 2012