Lenzing: A tour of the Austrian wood pulp fibre factory
Polyester and cotton make up the overwhelming majority of our textiles. They account for 64% and 28% respectively of the fibres produced in the world, according to the international organisation Textile Exchange. Cellulosic fibres, derived from plant pulp, are their main competition, accounting for 6% of world textile production. Of which 1% comes from the Austrian company Lenzing, whose modal, lyocell and viscose benefit from the growing consumer desire for more natural materials. Criticised for its exploitation of wood and its highly chemical transformation processes, the textile manufacturer Lenzing opened the doors of its historic factory, located in the small town of the same name in northern Austria, to FashionNetwork.com in order to lift the veil on a complex, little-known production method that is the subject of heavy investment by the company with a turnover of 2.5 billion euros.
Equipped with compulsory helmets and yellow waistcoats, badges for the security gates and gloves to bear the Austrian winter, the tour of to the 200-hectare historic Lenzing site is like walking around a maze. A maze of streets where 17 kilometres of railways wind their way through the buildings, serving each stage of the transformation process of turning wood into fibre. The various stages are carried out daily by some 3,500 specialised workers.
An impressive line of tree trunks are stacked in one area. None of which will go to waste. Thus, 40% of this wood will become pulp, and soon fibre. A further 10% will go to biorefineries to become acetic acid (for the pharmaceutical and food industries), furfural (solvents, lubricants, etc.), magnesium lignosulphonate (packaging, bonded wood, etc.) or soda ash (glass industry). The 50% that cannot be used will be transformed into energy and heating to supply the site itself.
The wood is first reduced to chips, which then undergo chemical transformation baths to become pulp. The pulp is then transformed into thick sheets of white "paper" for easy transportation.
This chemical transformation, which fills the industrial site with a bittersweet smell reminiscent of ethanol, is one of the criticisms historically levelled at Lenzing and its competitors, the first of which is the Indian company Aditya Birla. Some critics, while acknowledging the plant-based source of cellulose, are concerned about the pollution associated with its production.
For its oldest technology, viscose (in which the group no longer invests), Lenzing explains that it complies with Austrian and European anti-pollution regulations. In passing, the employees bring up the fish that live in the Ager river which surrounds the factory site, located near the Attersee lake, the deepest in Austria. They even offer to drink the water themselves. For the group's latest technology, lyocell, Lenzing explains that it now reuses 99.9% of the chemicals used.
At the heart of lyocell production
Lenzing has had time to improve its methods: although the general public occasionally rediscovers, sometimes unexpectedly, that its clothes are made from wood, the discovery of viscose dates back to the industrial revolution.
With 85 years of activity, Lenzing now divides its business between different cellulose products made from wood. On the one hand, viscose, including the new "Ecovero" fibre, launched in 2017, whose production emits 50% less CO² than its predecessor. And on the other, Tencel fibres, including modal (more resistant and breathable) and lyocell, the latter being the greenest fibre of them all.
Lyocell is made in a separate building, whose metallic façade in shades of grey contrasts with the red bricks of the original buildings. Access to the building is controlled and photographs are forbidden for confidentiality reasons.
Beneath the 33 metres and six floors of this large unit, the white "sheets" can be found piled up, gripped by robotic arms, sending them for the second time to the crusher. The pulp shoots through pipes to the sixth floor, where baths slowly transform it into a liquid glue resembling honey, which eventually flows into another bath.
The result is a long, whitish "rug" that runs slowly through an impressive machine several dozen metres long. The thick, fluffy material undergoes a succession of treatments. Before being shredded one last time, it then passes through a colossal drying machine developed in-house by Lenzing.
This machine occupies three levels and is some forty metres long. In the heat and noise of the machines, 70 tonnes of lyocell fibres are made every day under the watchful eye of a camera. Behind the screens of all sizes lining a vast control room next door, a small army of technicians leave nothing to chance.
Notably, the company is now banking on lyocell. "The market for cellulose fibre is growing," says Daniel Winkelmeier, director of corporate communications. "For a long time, cotton has been growing, but its production is stabilising. In addition, the cotton price crisis in 2022 reminded the sponsors of the dangers posed by this material, and they started to look again for alternatives to no longer be dependent on cotton."
Wood and deforestation
In addition to this, the company has a green advantage: while 20% of cotton is lost during processing, nothing is wasted in the processing of the wood used by Lenzing. Cotton also requires large quantities of water, pesticides, insecticides and other fertilisers. Where a planted tree grows by itself.
Trees are the other big issue that Lenzing regularly has to justify, against the background of suspicions of deforestation and carbon pollution. "Forests have a life cycle, they store carbon. But at the end of its life, the tree breaks down and releases it, no matter what. We are just exploiting it before that happens," stresses Christian Schuster, the group's sustainability expert. He points out in passing that only 1% of all wood used worldwide is used in the textile industry.
But is all wood good for making cellulose fibre? "All wood, and even all plants," smiles the specialist. He explains that Lenzing mainly uses beech and birch in Austria, spruce in the Czech Republic and eucalyptus in Brazil. In Brazil, it takes only seven years for a tree to reach maturity, compared with 30-40 years in Europe.
For its recent Brazilian site producing 500,000 tonnes of wood pulp per year near Sao Paulo, Lenzing explains that it has chosen to acquire its own forest land, far from areas ravaged by deforestation, in order to set up a sustainable rotation of operations. With the forest protection NGO Canopy stamp, Lenzing complies with the SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) standard on the other side of the Atlantic, as it does with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) standard on the Old Continent.
But Lenzing is not just relying on forests, it is also preparing for recycling, as demonstrated by the recent agreement with Renewcell to be supplied with recycled fibre pulp. A "Circulose" that the company intends to use for its Tencel (lyocell, modal) and Ecovero (more responsible viscose) fibre productions.
Gaining market share in a gloomy context
The silky touch of the cellulose fibre, which used to be called rayon, has enabled Lenzing to attract some 700 brands, from luxury groups to mass retail, including Nike, Zara, Decathlon and Etam. Enough to produce 500 million pieces, where the fibre is often mixed with linen, cotton or polyester. Cellulose fibres must maintain their market share facing these materials.
Lenzing currently has a network of nine plants in Austria, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Indonesia, China and Thailand.
In the spring of 2022, 150 kilometres east of Bangkok, the group acquired its most recent site, which will be able to increase its annual viscose production to 400,000 tonnes and supply textile factories in Asia-Pacific with cellulose fibres.
However, Lenzing is not immune to the current difficulties in the textile sector. After the lockdowns linked to the pandemic, which slowed down orders, and the freight crisis which delayed and increased the cost of deliveries, the Austrian manufacturer has been hit by low consumption caused by inflation. Yet Europe is the first destination for clothing production, especially from Asia.
The group is also affected by the crisis of energy costs, which has led Euratex, the European confederation of clothing and textiles, to fear a wave of relocations in the textile industry. Only the Brazilian, Thai and Czech sites rely on renewable energy. "Gas cannot always be replaced by electricity in the processes," explains Johannes Stefan, commercial director. "We have to constantly adjust our organisation. So there are cyclical disruption phases in terms of costs."
On March 9, Lenzing announced a 16.9% increase in turnover in 2022, to 2.57 billion euros. This is a natural increase, driven by inflation in material costs and especially energy (17% of total costs, up 5 points). Above all, demand fell by 19.1% between the two half-year periods.
But with its alternative to synthetic fibres, Lenzing believes that brands will eventually opt for cellulosics. More expensive, but also more in line with the growing demand for natural materials.
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