Fibre recycling technologies don’t grow overnight, but the fashion industry needs them as soon as possible to meet the ambitious climate goals of 2030. For the Lenzing Group, one of the oldest companies in regenerated cellulose fibres, ‘Refibra’ is the focal recycling innovation. The fibre blend consists of cellulose pulp made from wood and waste cotton. Yet, despite some successful collaborations, Refibra hasn’t become mainstream.
So why does it take so long for commercial recycling to break through? FashionUnited asked Lenzing’s business development manager Michael Kininmonth what challenges and solutions he has seen during his 47-year career in the textile business.
You’re responsible for Lenzing Group’s business development. What is the next big thing we can expect from Lenzing in the recycling space?
We are looking to put recycled content in all our fibres. So it will be in Viscose, it will be in Modal, and we are increasing the recycled content in Tencel x Refibra. The next big thing in this space is scaling – not just for Lenzing but for the whole fibre recycling industry.
Can you briefly tell us the story behind Refibra?
It started back in 2011. I was at the headquarters of Lenzing with the head of R&D. He told me he'd taken an old cotton towel and was experimenting to produce fibres from this waste cotton. About six months later I bumped into Nick Ryan of Worn Again in the UK, and he told me they were starting to look at separation technology for poly-cotton blends. I thought: why can't we do this as Lenzing? Because our business was based on converting cellulose.
We were able to fund a PhD student and looked at this for two or three years. And eventually I got buy-in from management. We found a way to blend cellulose pulp from wood and waste cotton and launched in 2017. We were the first in the market to be able to produce something on mass scale.
Brands like Patagonia and Levi’s are already using Refibra. It seems to be going well.
It’s gone into quite a few brands, we've been able to increase the amount of recycled content to 30 percent, and we've been able to include some [post-]consumer waste. But we've probably made very little profits on Refibra in five years, because it's an extra step.
We are used to working with our perfect raw material, which is wood pulp, and then what we're being asked to do is to take a very imperfect different material – cotton waste – back to a fibre form and make virgin fibre of a higher quality. You also have to remove all imperfections like dyes and other chemicals.
And that complexity keeps brands from joining the recycling game?
Since you work much less efficiently and produce much lower volumes, prices are higher than the standard fibre. You need the buy-in of the brands so you can build very large production sites to make economies of scale [for hundreds of millions of euros] and to technically hone your process. I don't think that has happened for anybody working in this area. Brands say: we love recycling, we must have it, but we don't want it for that price. They reject it in reality.
Many of the chemical recycling technologies you hear about now have just started to get investments 10 years on. I don't think anybody understood the scale of the fibre industry and what was required, so the progress has been extremely slow.
Where does that lack of understanding come from?
Very few people on a brand level have actually worked in the industry. When you are talking to somebody that is very inexperienced, you can't make the case with them because they don't understand the issues and the complexity. Instead, they make a myriad of rules and certifications.
There's been a knowledge gap in chemical recycling. Chemical separation is one thing, retaining the properties needed for a fibre company is something else. We had non-disclosure agreements with companies in the early days that sent us the stuff like a soup, with no chance of spinning a fibre from it, because they almost destroyed the cellulose in the process. What wasn't understood was the needs of the spinner. They didn’t have textile people, they were chemists.
What’s the current situation?
This is what’s happening now as well. There's a lot of great activity and I applaud organisations like Fashion for Good for instance, who've been a platform to bring in the innovators. But when you look at many of the innovations out there, there's been no reference to them having engaged with the textile industry.
There is a culture of ‘big companies are bad, small companies are good’, with a lot of focus and support for the latter. The small start-ups need the big guys as well. Companies like Lenzing have honed their skills over decades.
What about power dynamics? Do they inhibit the scaling of recycling technologies?
There are many relatively low technological solutions, but nobody can afford to take them on because the blood has been squeezed out of the supply chain. Everybody's operating on very low margins and proceeds are not equally shared along the supply chain. Everybody is asking for a situation where we put the competitive nature aside and all come together and share our knowledge. The reality is, there is this balance in power and money at play.
Brands want to join in, but only when it's ready and these solutions have to be cost neutral. That is a euphemism to say: we don't want to pay for it. Innovators do the R&D for many years which costs a lot of money, but they can’t charge more money. When I worked for fabric mills in the 1970s, they had more power.
Could governments change the rules of the game?
Governments can put some kind of levy like five or ten euro cents on garments and bring that money back into the industry for research and development. That I think was talked about quite some years ago, in the Swedish Parliament, for instance, but it hasn't happened.
And governments tend to move slowly. Should we expect more movement from investors?
There seems to be some momentum in the sense that some of the recycling companies are getting quite good investments: millions, from investment companies and foundations like H&M Foundation or C&A Foundation. I think things are starting to accelerate and companies have started to come together. If you take Lenzing, for instance, we have this joint venture Södra Group and we are engaging with companies like Renewcell.
I think one of the dangers is that in our area of the business, there are many different ways of doing the chemistry. If you look at making viscose – a process over a hundred years old – there isn't ten ways of making it, there is only one. So unfortunately, some companies are going to fall by the wayside. If brands are shopping around multiple complicated technologies, most of it is wasted on the industry.
What do you think is the holy grail to solving this problem?
I'm utterly convinced that education is the way forward. Sustainability is about science and chemistry and it's complicated. Who really understands the claims at any level? Hardly anybody. But if children grew up with this, they’d be in a better position to make a rational decision when they buy their clothes.