How Sustainable Are Lyocell Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Lyocell Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:17 Minutes


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Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fiber, which seems to, regarding sustainability, marry the best of both worlds: natural and artificial fibers. The manufacturing process, which uses advanced synthetic substances, creates a durable fabric that doesn’t require washing frequently – telltale signs of the material’s sustainability. So we had to ask: How sustainable are lyocell fabrics?

Lyocell is generally a sustainable fabric. It is made with cellulose fibers that grow rapidly and replenish sustainably and the fabric is long-lasting, reusable and biodegradable. However, both manufacturing and transporting of lyocell fabrics is relatively energy-intensive.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of lyocell fabrics used for clothes and bedding. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with lyocell fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Lyocell Fabrics

Lyocell fabric is generally considered a sustainable material, with lesser adverse environmental effects than other commonly used fabrics, like cotton, viscose, or polyester. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric made with regenerated cellulose fibers and dissolvent chemicals:

Lyocell fiber is classified as a type of rayon – a group of regenerated cellulose fibers:

  • Viscose is considered the 1st generation of rayon
  • Modal is considered the 2nd generation of rayon
  • Lyocell is considered as the 3rd generation of rayon 

All these three rayons are made with cellulosic fibers regenerated in the manufacturing process. They are similar to cotton or hemp in the sense that all of these fabrics contain cellulosic fibers, but the fibers in cotton and hemp are natural (instead of regenerated). 

Lyocell: A cellulose fabric that is obtained by an organic solvent spinning process.”

Federal Trade Commission

To understand the sustainability of lyocell fabrics, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of lyocell fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with lyocell fabrics. 

The life-cycle stages of lyocell fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of lyocell fabricsSourcing wood for making lyocell fabrics is largely sustainable because wood is generally a renewable material. The most common wood used in lyocell manufacturing comes from fast-growing eucalyptus trees. As a raw material, it can be renewed quickly and requires almost no pesticide and less water than other fiber crops. 
Manufacturing of lyocell fabricsManufacturing lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing location. However, the dissolvent solution used in manufacturing can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. 
Transporting of lyocell fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothes items made with lyocell fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests (where lyocell raw materials are grown) to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill.
Usage of lyocell fabricsThe usage of lyocell fabrics is sustainable because lyocell clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes and less ironing time during the lifespan. 
End-of-life of lyocell fabricsThe end-of-life stage for lyocell fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that lyocell fabric is one of the more sustainable options for clothing and bedding. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like sportswear, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the wood, the type of energy used in manufacturing, and the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy lyocell fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Wood Fibers for Lyocell Fabrics

Sourcing wood for making lyocell fabrics is generally sustainable because wood is a renewable material. The most common wood used in lyocell manufacturing comes from fast-growing eucalyptus trees. As a raw material, it can be renewed quickly and requires almost no pesticide and less water than other fiber crops. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Lyocell Fabrics

Cellulose fibers are the main material used for lyocell fabrics. They are derived from woods like eucalyptus (most commonly), oak, birch, beech, or bamboo

Synthetic substances are also used in making lyocell fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage. This sourcing section will focus on the wood from the eucalyptus trees in particular. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Lyocell Fabrics Impact the Environment

Eucalyptus wood is the main raw material used in lyocell fabrics. Sourcing eucalyptus wood as is generally sustainable because eucalyptus trees have a high carbon sequestration potential, replenish fast, and are easy to grow. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As eucalyptus trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis
  • Eucalyptus Trees Replenish Fast and Are Easy to Grow

    Eucalyptus Trees Need Little Water and No Pesticide 
    Growing eucalyptus trees for lyocell’s material requires much less water than other fiber crops. For example, for the same biomass, a eucalyptus plantation requires only a quarter of the water needed by a cotton plantation.

    Eucalyptus trees also require little to no pesticide to grow. 

    Eucalyptus Trees Are Highly Adaptable 
    Though eucalyptus species are native to Australia, they adapt well to the climate in California and Hawaii as well as many other sub-tropical and tropical regions. 

    Besides, eucalyptus trees can grow in disturbed land where other food crops can’t go. Using non-fertile lands to grow these species is a great way to generate raw materials for lyocell fabrics. 

    Eucalyptus Trees Grow Rapidly
    Eucalyptus wood can be harvested as raw material for lyocell fabrics after a decade. That is much shorter than other materials like oak wood or birch wood. 
Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of eucalyptus trees? Check it out in this article here: “How Sustainable Is Eucalyptus Wood? Here Are the Facts?

Where Are the Raw Materials for Lyocell Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Eucalyptus wood is the main raw material for lycoell fabrics. And eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and surrounding islands. They have also been grown in plantations throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions, including California and Hawaii in the United States. 

As established in the previous section, growing eucalyptus trees (as the main material for lyocel fabrics) is largely sustainable. However, large-scale plantations outside their native range can be problematic if proper forestry management is not in place. 

You can find the full details of negative ecological impacts when eucalyptus trees are planted in mass outside their native range in our article about the sustainability of eucalyptus wood, but here are the main concerns: 

  • Reduced biodiversity regarding the amount of plant and animal species
  • Potential harm to coastal reefs by over-sedimentation
  • Increased risk of wildfires 

As a consumer, it is important for you to trace the origin of eucalyptus fibers used by the clothing brands of your choice. It is often the case that sustainable brands are transparent about the raw material they use. We will include examples of sustainable textile brands that use lyocell fabrics at the end of the article. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Lyocell Fabrics

Manufacturing lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing location. However, the dissolvent solution used in manufacturing can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. 

How Sustainably Is Lyocell Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical lyocell manufacturing process follows these five steps: 

  1. Prepare the wood pulp (harvesting wood, cutting it into penny-sized pieces, and grounding the pieces into a pulp)
  2. Dissolve wood pulp using an organic solvent (an amine oxide and water solution) 
  3. Filter the solution 
  4. Spin to create lyocell fibers 
  5. Wash, dry, and weave the yarn into lyocell fabric (pretreatment chemicals might be used to enhance dyeing capacities) 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Manufacturing Lyocell Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

The manufacturing process of lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive. It requires a lot of energy to dissolving the pulp and filtering the solution. 

Because of the energy usage, lyocell fabric has a relatively high carbon footprint. According to Higg Index, its carbon footprint is higher than the average carbon footprint of textile material. Lyocell fabric has a total carbon footprint roughly 50% higher than those of, for example, cotton and polyester. 

On the other hand, the carbon footprint of lyocell fabric is lower than that of viscose (the first generation of rayon fiber), partly because the lyocell manufacturing involves fewer steps. Lyocell is generally considered a more environmentally friendly alternative for clothing that often requires viscose (such as sportswear). 

Manufacturing Lyocell Fabrics Recycles Solvent

On the second step of lyocell manufacturing, a chemical solvent is used to dissolve wood pulp. This solution contains half water and half amine oxide. 99,5% of the solvent can be recycled to use again and again in a closed-loop process. The small percentage released into the environment is considered non-hazardous waste that doesn’t pose an environmental concern. 

Manufacturing Lyocell Fabrics Uses Pretreatment Chemicals

The final step of lyocell manufacturing involves dying the fabric. However, locell fibers don’t take dye very well. Pretreatment with chemicals is often necessary before finishing. And if toxic chemicals are used in this step, they can contribute to increased toxicity, hazards, pollution, and an increase of waste. At least, manufacturers can increase the sustainability of production by opting for eco-friendly or less harmful substances.

Lyocell fabric production requires a lot of energy. It also uses synthetic substances. Parts of the chemicals used are often recycled to reduce waste. 

Where Are Lyocell Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Lyocell fabrics are made in several countries, including 

The total carbon footprint of lyocell fabrics can be reduced at manufacturing locations with a higher percentage of renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass). 

Here’s the share of renewable energy (as a percentage of primary energy) for each of the main lyocell producing countries as of 2021:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • the United Kingdom: 17.95% renewable energy
  • the US: 10.66% renewable energy

It is important for you, as a consumer, to find out where the lyocell fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Lyocell Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with lyocell fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests (where raw materials for lyocell are grown) to processing factories, then sorting centres, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centres or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of lyocell clothes, transportation typical occurs as below: 

  • From forests where lyocell raw materials are grown to the lyocell fiber manufacturing location
  • From the lyocell fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location 
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing

It’s extremely rare for lyocell raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. It’s more often the case that lyocell fabrics are transported long distances and on various vehicles. Let’s have a look at the transporting miles and the mode of transportation up close: 

Lyocell Fabrics Typically Travel Long Distances 

Eucalyptus trees are native species from Australia and nearby islands. If you live in a temperate region and buy lyocell fabrics made from eucalyptus wood pulp, your clothing would have generally had a long journey to reach you. 

The good news is that eucalyptus trees are also grown in plantations around the world’s hotter regions, from Southern Europe to Califonia, to name a few. Thus, the traveling distance of a specific piece of eucalyptus lyocell fabric can vary significantly. 

  • For example, some lyocell manufacturers can source eucalyptus grown in Spain as raw materials, truck it to Austria to make lyocell clothing items, and then ship it to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Another scenario for transporting lyocell fabrics could be shipping eucalyptus wood from forests in Australia to factories in Indonesia and to consumer markets in Europe or the US.
  • It is also possible to have lyocell fabrics grown, made, and sold entirely within the US. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by opting for the lyocell fabrics from some of the closer tropical and subtropical forests (providing that they have not first been sent to a manufacturing factory on the other side of the world). 

Another option is to look for lyocell fabrics made with locally-grown oak or birch pulp to significantly reduce the transportation footprint of your clothing items. 

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Lyocell Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of lyocell clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, yous as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering lyocell clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your lyocell items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Lyocell Fabrics

The usage of lyocell fabrics is sustainable because lyocell clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes and less ironing time during their lifespan. 

What Is the Typical Lifespan of Products Made of Lyocell Fabrics

Clothes made with lyocell fabrics can last for years and years because the material is very strong (strong enough even for conveyor belts). Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

What Are Other Properties That Make Using Lyocell Fabrics Sustainable

Washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing:

Another pro-environmental point of lyocell fabric is that it doesn’t wrinkle easily:

  • As lyocell clothes and bedding wrinkle less, they don’t need ironing very often,
  • which helps to reduce energy consumption during the usage stage. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Lyocell Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for lyocell fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Lyocell Fabric Is Biodegradable

Lyocell fabric is 100% cellulose, making it a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfill can all be used as end-of-life options. 

It takes about two months for lyocell products to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Lyocell Fibers Can Be Recycled and Upcycled

Cellulose fibers have the potential for re-use and remanufacture. For example, 100% lyocell fabrics can reenter a circular fashion model as a raw material for regenerated cellulose fiber production.

However, when lyocell fibers are blended with other materials, the end-of-life options are more limited. The end product is no longer biodegradable if other synthetic fibers are used in the blend.

How Circular Are Products Made of Lyocell Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input are new resource.

When it comes to lyocell fabrics, there have been incentives towards a circular economy:

How Can You Buy Lyocell Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying lyocell products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • Forest Stewardship Council: An FSC certification ensures that the eucalyptus wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
  • Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.
  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification identify products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products.

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Lyocell Fabrics 

Since lyocell fabric was first commercially produced in Alabama in 1992, it has steadily gained a foothold in the textile industry, appearing in clothes, bed linen, and many other fabric applications. And in 2021, the global market value of lyocell fiber was US$ 1.1 Billion. 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all lyocell clothes are made equally, even though lyocell fabrics are generally sustainable. 

Lyocell clothes can only be truly sustainable when the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests (where harvesting rotation allows new trees to grow and replace cut-down trees). In addition, the sustainability of lyocell fabrics depends on: 

  • Energy usages (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Pretreatment chemical usages in manufacturing 

Consequently, you want to buy lyocell clothes from brands that are transparent about their raw materials and committed to reducing energy usage and emissions. Here are some of such sustainable brands (in alphabetic order): 

You also want to beware of greenwashing in fashion. Lyocell is susceptible to greenwashing in the sense that some companies might use this material as a claim for their (overal) sustainability without the transparency about where and how the lyocell fabrics are made to back it up. 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the forth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce to pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Lyocell fabric is generally a sustainable material made with natural cellulose fibers. You can buy clothes made with lyocell fabrics as long as the raw materials for the yarns come from sustainably managed forests. Besides, you want to check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing energy and recycling fibers. To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand lyocell clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

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