“Is there a way to save the cotton, that people have spent so much effort growing, from landfills to put it back into people’s closets?“
This month we take a closer look at textile industry developments aiming to reduce - or even better, eliminate - harmful emissions into air and water streams. Nowadays most fashion retail buyers are aware that there are a number of fabrics and products on the market that are more environmentally friendly than their traditional counterparts. In their search for more sustainable products, they might land upon Circulose, by Renewcell.
Nora Eslander from Renewcell shared with us some behind the scenes insights on this material.
Nora joined Renewcell this year in the position of brand manager. Following her growing concern about sustainability issues caused by the fashion industry, she decided to join Renewcell in their transition to industrial scale production. By helping to build the Circulose® brand, she strives to change the way professionals in the industry view recycled fabrics and thereby engage in circular fashion.
Tell us about Circulose; What sparked the initial idea to develop this material? Could you describe what distinguishes Circulose from other circular textile solutions?
Circulose® is a recycled material made from discarded textiles. It’s made and produced by Renewcell, founded at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology by a group of scientists who all came to the same question; “Is there a way to save the cotton, that people have spent so much effort growing, from landfills and put it back into people’s closets?"
Together, they could see the demand, had a vision for the technology and the capacity to turn the concept into a profitable business. In 2012, they founded Renewcell and, in 2019, the team started to produce sheets of Circulose® in our plant here in Sweden. Circulose® is made from discarded textiles, such as pairs of old jeans that cannot be sold again. We use a breakthrough process that is 100% powered by renewable energy to transform the old clothes into natural material without using any new cotton, oil or tree-based materials.
Fabric and fibers made from Circulose® are indistinguishable from virgin man-made cellulosic fibers and fabrics. There is no compromise on quality – the only difference is sustainability.
Circular Textiles; What are the biggest challenges we face today to close the loop in the fashion industry?
There are several big challenges ahead. One challenge in making any industry more circular is going from lab scale to industrial scale. There are a lot of great ideas out there to make the fashion industry more sustainable. But the fact is that the only way to have a real impact is through scale. Fashion will keep growing as an industry due to the simple fact that the global middle class will grow by 1.7 billion people in the coming decade. It is unlikely that many fashion lovers will accept to compromise either design or quality to be more sustainable. So circular fashion has to be at least as good as the unsustainable materials in use today.
Safeguarding Circularity; Many discarded clothes and textiles that are recuperated probably contain undesired harmful chemicals. How does your recycling system deal with this in creating a new biodegradable raw material?
We receive used garments with high cellulosic content (cotton and viscose). The textiles are de-buttoned, de-zipped, shredded, de-colored and turned into a slurry. We separate contaminants and other non-cellulosic content from the slurry. The slurry is dried to produce a pure, natural Circulose branded pulp, which is packaged into bales and fed into the textile production cycle.
Our chemical process does not contain any harmful chemicals and the chemicals we do use go through a closed-loop system so that they do not affect the environment in any way.
From Pulp to Fabric to Fashion; From what we understand, Circulose pulp can be turned into textile fiber, which, in collaboration with partner mills, can be turned into a wide variety of textiles? Could you give us some examples of products that have been developed in this way?
Yes, that is correct. Circulose® pulp is a dissolving pulp that is used to make fibers, which is then spun into yarn and fabric. This year we already launched products with two global brands. Together with H&M, we developed a blue dress for their Conscious Collection that came to the market in March. And, in July, with Levi’s®, we launched two pairs of jeans partly made of recycled denim.
The importance of collaboration; As an organization, you seem very open to collaboration, eager to collaborate with others to influence culture and make circularity the new normal. What do you look for in embarking on a collaboration? Do you have certain criteria?
We believe that in order to bring about change, we have to do it together. We are already working together with global brands to provide them with recycled pulp. However, a lot more needs to be done and we need culture change as well. That is why we launched our new platform “Circulose Projects”. This is a space for us to collaborate with smaller brands and designers, where we can hold conversations about other important aspects of the fashion industry that need to move towards circularity. We don’t really have any strict requirements. However, all projects we engage with must promote circularity as the new cool normal. We have received some great ideas and are looking forward to getting even more. Do you have one? Shoot us an email!
Circular Economy & Social Impact; Your focus is on circular textiles- closing the loop in the fashion industry. Within our community, we regularly also discuss the social impact of the circular economy. Do you see ways in which circular business models can improve the well-being of communities along fashion's global supply chain?
The fashion industry's supply chains are long, complex, and with a large social and environmental impact. As we are now re-thinking the supply chains in order to make them more circular, we have the opportunity to change the social impact as well. Personally, I hope that as we. move towards more transparency within the industry, the social aspect will inevitably change for the better as well.
Will the future of fashion be circular? Do you see change happening in the industry? And how do you expect the fashion retail supply chain to develop going forward?
Definitely! First of all, we can see a change in behavior and demand from consumers, especially among young consumers. The fact that someone like Greta Thunberg makes the cover of Vogue underscores this change. And it is putting pressure on brands to deliver more sustainable options. From our position, we can definitely also see that many brands would like to do better but don’t always know where to start. This is where innovations like Renewcell play an important role. We must provide brands and other key players in the supply chain with recycled and more sustainable options. Which is exactly what we are doing! So yes, change is happening but we really hope and believe that this will accelerate even further in the near future. We must continue to consume and produce less, better and more circular.
Your journey towards where you are today.
What are the learnings you would like to share with other social impact entrepreneurs in fashion and retail?
This is a difficult question as we are still learning every day. Developing a new process comes with many challenges of course. Large and small problems crop up in the lab at every point and they all need to be overcome. And as we look into scaling the process, all the problems converge into one; raising capital. Scaling industrial innovations requires a lot of time and financial endurance. We’re extremely proud of what the engineering team has achieved in a very short amount of time.
For me personally, I think it is important to really stay educated and open to new knowledge within this field. Sustainability in fashion is sadly a relatively new concept. But there are so many great reports and new information is being published every day now. I believe it is important to stay updated and open. As we learn new things we can adapt and change our behavior accordingly.
Collaborate & learn more
Renewcell's new concept Circulose Projects collaborates with innovative brands, scientists, designers, techies, writers, artists (or anyone really) to make cool stuff with Circulose.
Do you have an idea for a project or would you learn more about their processes. Visit https://circulo.se/ or follow @circulose on social media.