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Professor Mikael Lindström, Dr. Christofer Lindgren, Malcolm Norlin and Professor Gunnar Henriksson.

Photo: Renewcell. Renewcell's founders: Professor Mikael Lindström, Dr. Christofer Lindgren, Malcolm Norlin and Professor Gunnar Henriksson.

Categories: Start a business

The Swedes who make fashion sustainable

Publish date: 20 December 2021

You probably don’t know their faces and have never heard their names. But these four men aim to revolutionize the whole fashion industry and to reach all the way into your closet.

The fashion industry is growing, year after year. As we buy more and more items of clothing, the environmental impact increases. The production of one single pair of jeans requires 10,000-20,000 liters of water. One wash load of polyester clothes can release 700,000 microplastic fibers. And more than 80 percent of all unwanted clothes end up in landfills. But there is hope.

In the fall of 2019, Renewcell was one of the first companies to win the Norrsken Award – the biggest prize for impact startups in the Nordics. Their patented recycling process for turning cotton and other cellulosic textiles into viscose grade dissolving pulp impressed the jury.

"Usually, the recycling process is mechanical, meaning you tear up the garments and try to preserve the textile fibers as long as possible in order to make a new yarn out of them. The problem is that there is always a quality loss and you have to mix in new raw material to get an acceptable quality", says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, head of communications at Renewcell. "Our recycling process is chemical. We break down the material to a molecular level and put it back together again, into a new fiber. By doing this, we get the same quality as if it was virgin material. It’s the quality that really makes the difference. And since we don’t damage the fibers, we think it’s possible to recycle infinitely".

Harald Cavalli-Björkman sums it up:
"I think we won because we actually have a chance to change the world". 

In the meantime, there are several tips and tricks for consumers who want to continue shopping with good conscience. We asked Harald Cavalli-Björkman for his best advice.

How do you shop in a more conscious way?
"Firstly, reduce: Think again, should you really buy something? Secondly, reuse: Choose vintage or look for recycled or durable materials. There is a bunch of great shops in Stockholm".

Can you recommend any vintage or second-hand stores in Stockholm?
"Myrorna, Stadsmissionen, and Humana, are the classics. Then there’s also Arkivet, Beyond Retro, Judits secondhand, and Herr Judits. Mini Rodini and Filippa K are two designer brands that both sell second-hand clothes on Hornsgatan".

Any other shops that invest in sustainable fashion?
"Nudie repair shop in their flagship store is focusing on taking care of clothes, rather than consuming them. Also, H&M has started a take care concept, where they clearly mark clothes made from better materials, and in some stores, you can repair your clothes or hand in old garments for recycling and get a small discount in exchange".

Are some materials better than others?
"Cotton is not good, in general. However, we are many who like cotton, and then you need to look for organic cotton like GOTS (Guaranteed Organic Textile Standard). Lyocell and viscose that is FSC (The Forest Stewardship Council) certified are also good. Also, avoid buying new clothes made of a mix of materials. They’re so much more difficult to recycle and a huge problem".

How can you tell if a garment is made of recycled material?
"Look at the label and don’t be afraid to ask. There’s a jungle and hard to know as a consumer, choosing vintage shops is the easiest way. Eventually, start looking for circulose". [Circulose is Renewcell’s trademarked recycled material].

When will we be able to buy garments made of circulose?
"I can’t tell you yet. But probably around spring 2020. The clothes are already there, so it depends on when the stores want to launch them. It will be one high-end label, one high street chain, and most likely a big denim producer as well".

What are Renewcell’s plans for the future?
"We want to recycle one billion garments a year by 2030 and expand from there. It may sound crazy, but it’s fully realistic".

Considering the fact that only 15 percent of all clothes are recycled today, it sure sounds necessary.


Norrsken Award:
The biggest prize for impact startups in the Nordics.

Renewcell: A startup company with a patented technology that recycles high cellulosic waste into pure, natural dissolving pulp. Founded in 2012 by three scientists at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm. Since 2017, 9 percent of Renewcell is owned by the Swedish retail chain H&M.

GOTS: The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is recognized as the world's leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well.

FSC: The Forest Stewardship Council is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world's forests. The FSC does this by setting standards on forest products, along with certifying and labeling them as eco-friendly.

Circulose: A new dissolving pulp product made by recovering cotton from worn-out clothes, trademarked by Renewcell.

Lyocell: A dissolving pulp product made by cellulose fiber. Tencel, which is trademarked by Lenzing, is one of the most well-known lyocell fiber producers.