Clothes and other textiles offer us comfort, protection, and a way to express our individuality. The textiles industry also plays a significant role in the global economy, providing employment for hundreds of millions around the world. However, the way we design, produce, and use clothes creates severe environmental and social impacts. The total greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles production are equal to 1.2 billion tons annually which is 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined. Nevertheless, the textile industry has the opportunity to develop solutions that help achieve sustainable development. We need to transform the entire system of how we produce, design and use clothes, and Finland is in a great position to lead this change.

We need to wish fast fashion farewell

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), the textiles system operates in an almost completely linear manner. This means that large amounts of non-renewable resources are obtained to manufacture clothes that are often used for only a short time, partly because of their poor quality in the first place, after which they are sent to landfill or burned.

A major reason for this linearity is the popularity of the fast fashion business model: cheap materials and cheap labor are used to introduce new clothing collections at a rapid pace. As a result of this trend, new fashion lines are not introduced on a seasonal basis as has been the norm traditionally but instead, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products at high speed in order to stay on-trend. It is becoming widely known that the true cost of fast fashion is paid by our environment and society.

I recently watched the documentary Stacey Dooley investigates: Fashion’s dirty secrets and this documentary will most definitely make you question your shopping habits. Guess how many liters of water went into producing your jeans? The answer is: 10 000 litres, on average. Jeans are made from cotton which is one of the world’s thirstiest crops. Cotton represents almost half of the fibre used in clothes and other textiles worldwide and demand for it continues to grow. The current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable and today only 19% of global cotton is produced using sustainable farming methods. There is not enough cotton available to meet the world’s growing needs.

It becomes evident that we need to wish fast fashion farewell for good.

Undoubtedly the entire fashion industry needs systemic change. From the materials we use, to how clothes are produced, to how often we shop and the ways we shop. We also need to create ways of extending the lifetime of a product. Sustainable business models need to be developed.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) we need to shift to a circular textile economy. In stark contrast to the earlier described linear textile system, in the circular textile economy clothes, textiles, and fibers are used and circulated responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible and never end up as waste.

Finland is already a pioneer in sustainable textile business

Luckily on a global scale there are various actors who are trying to reform the system entirely. I will now share a few praiseworthy examples of such players in Finland. However, there are many which could be mentioned here, lucky for us Finns.

The recently funded Finix research consurtium is led by Aalto University’s Sustainability in Business (SUB) research group’s Professor Minna Halme and it brings together a team of researchers from Aalto Schools of Business, Arts and Chemical Engineering; Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE); Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT); Lappeenranta University of Technology; and Lahti and Turku Universities of Applied Science. Finix will study sustainable technologies, materials (characterized by the use of fibres from recycled textiles, agriwaste and wood) as well as business models for long textile lifespans.

Alongside this research, Finix will help Finnish firms develop breakthrough innovations that enable a circular textile economy. Finix will simultaneously link Finnish companies with the international textile industry’s value chains and also help push the global textile industry toward sustainability. According to Finix’s leader, Minna Halme, this method and its application offer a potential methodological breakthrough in sustainability science.

Many of us Finns remember admiring our First Lady’s, Jenni Haukio’s, evening gown at last year’s annual Independence Day celebrations at the presidential palace. It was designed and produced by a team at Aalto University using a sustainable technology called Ioncell. The process was developed at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki and it creates quality textile fibres from a range of raw materials, including wood, recycled newspaper or cardboard, and old cotton textiles. Haukio’s dress was made of birch pulp from Stora Enso’s factory in Joensuu, Finland.

Unlike environmentally demanding cotton or viscose, the most common wood-derived fibre despite the use of toxic chemicals in its production, Ioncell fibre is an ecological alternative that can also be recycled. It also makes an excellent material for clothing, soft to touch and it falls beautifully.

In addition to Finix, Finnish innovators such as Ioncell, Infinited Fiber and Spinnova are also accelerating the journey from a linear to a circular fashion industry through their sustainable textile fibre innovations. These methods will help the clothing industry offer more environmentally friendly fabrics in the near future.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that jeans are usually made from the thirsty cotton crop? This could soon change thanks to Infinited Fiber’s technology. Infinited Fiber was spun off from VTT in 2015 and now has a pilot plant in operation. Their process separates fibre, turns it into a liquid, and transforms the liquid into a new cotton-like fibre.

As we know, cotton is a major material for the mainstream textile market and demand for it is growing globally, and Infinited Fiber plans to license their technology to big global producers to promote more sustainable fabric alternatives. Their denim has already met 100 percent of commercial quality requirements. Like the name of the technology suggests, Infinited Fiber is re-usable forever, carbon neutral and applicable like natural cotton without any microplastics harming the environment. 

I particularly like how Infinited Fiber encourages fashion brands to ‘Take our hand: Let’s make ecological fashion accessible & affordable to anyone’. These elements are key when discussing the commercialization of sustainable innovations: sustainable consumption needs to be made the easiest and the most attractive alternative for the masses. Earlier this year Infinited Fibre raised 3.7 million euros in funding from investors, including H&M Group, which will help Infinited Fiber develop and scale the technology in the coming years to meet the growing demand from the market. Sounds promising.

Spinnova is a Finnish company that has created a method that ‘spins’ wood-based cellulose into textile fibre but it is currently the only company in the world that is able to convert pulp directly into textile fibre without chemical solvents. The method is considerably less damaging to the environment than e.g. viscose or cotton production. For example, the manufacturing of textile fibre spun with Spinnova’s method consumes approximately 99 percent less water than cotton production. A fabric made with Spinnova fibre can also be reused, recycled or composted.

Marimekko has clearly been impressed by Spinnova’s technology. Since 2017 the two companies have being cooperating on the development and market entry of new, wood-based textiles and they are planning to bring their product to customers in the near future. With its fashion and textile industry expertise, Marimekko supports Spinnova in developing and commercializing textiles made with pulp-based fibre spun with Spinnova’s technology. The companies believe that cooperation between the textile industry and innovative companies such as Spinnova is key in bringing new materials to the market

Our strategy consultancy contributes to a circular economy

Our strategy consultancy has also contributed to accelerating the journey from a linear to a circular system. In 2017 Hopiasepät worked on the strategy of KIVO Finland, formerly know as the Finnish Solid Waste Association (FSWA), which represents Finnish municipal waste management companies, also including textile recycling to a certain extent.

As a result of the strategy work, the association’s new strategic goal is to move the focus of waste management towards a circular economy and make Finland a global circular economy pioneer. This goal is indicated also in the new name of the association: Suomen Kiertovoima KIVO (in English meaning: Finnish circular power). 

We are happy to help companies in similar and many other ways to make the world more circular and sustainable!

Consumers need to shop wisely also

If people didn’t buy the clothes offered in the rapidly changing collections, retailers would have to react eventually. However, many of us enjoy shopping and looking trendy and find it hard to change our habits (watch the documentary I recommended earlier, that could help motivate you!). I am one of the lucky ones since I do not particularly enjoy shopping. As I rarely shop, I am also able to buy good quality clothing which costs slightly more. I also genuinely prefer timeless and classic clothing and I do not get sick of my clothes even after wearing them for years.

Perhaps we should all ask ourselves a few questions before we buy something: Do you really need that? How often and for how long would you wear it? Could you borrow something from a friend or family member instead? Or buy it second-hand? For those of you who like to shop, don’t worry. You can still do it. Just shop less and better!

Fashion retailers, through their marketing, and social media influencers (with thousands or even millions of social media followers) have “brainwashed” many of us into thinking we need to stay on top of trends and that we need many things we actually do not. This is particularly the case for younger women. Therefore, fashion retailers and social media influencers also have to support our efforts to consume responsibly and offer us role models that we can look up to and follow. I believe that it is possible to change the mentality and attitudes around fashion.

Finnish businesses, are you ready?

It is clear that the clothing industry demands systemic change, involving actions by researchers, business and consumers. In this article I have tried to emphasize that here in Finland we already have globally significant expertise and technology needed to transform the global textile industry from linear to circular while simultaneously meeting the world’s textile needs. Finnish businesses, we have a unique opportunity to lead this change globally - are you in?

Hopiaseppien Janina Granholmin erityisosaamista ovat vastuulliset elintarvikkeet ja etenkin tuotteiden konseptointi ja markkinointi. Janina tutki 2017 gradussaan lihaa korvaavien proteiinituotteiden liiketoimintamalleja (nyhtökaura, härkis, mifu, oumph! ja quorn). Janina toimi Gold&Green Foodsin ”Nyhtökauravaikuttajana” loppuvuonna 2018 alkaen ja häntä on haastateltu useasti tulevaisuuden ruokaan liittyen. Janinan lempipuuhia on maistella ja kokeilla uusia tuotteita, varsinkin kasviperäisiä innovaatioita, ja hän kirjoittaa kumppaninsa kanssa ruokablogia nimeltä Couple of Finn Diners.