circular bioeconomy

Circular bioeconomy could revolutionise textile production

The Nordic Council of Ministers has identified the circular bioeconomy as a key component of a more sustainable textile industry. Replacing current materials with sustainable biomaterials, such as fish skin and wood-based cellulose fibres, could revolutionise the textile industry. One of the Council of Ministers’ key bioeconomy objectives is to make higher value products from the available biomass.

By Páll Tómas Finnsson

Need for new sustainable materials
The environmental costs of textile production are high. Many synthetic fabrics are made from oil, and the production of natural fibres such as cotton is highly resource-intensive. For example, producing one kilo of cotton – equivalent to a pair of jeans – requires 20,000 litres of water and around 11% of global pesticide production is utilised by the cotton industry. Meanwhile, it is estimated that by 2030, four billion people will lack access to clean
drinking water.

Global demand for textiles is expected to rise exponentially, due to rapid world population growth and an expanding middle class in countries like India, China and Brazil. This development, says Geir Oddsson, Senior Advisor at the Nordic Council of Ministers, underlines the need for improved production methods and new biomaterials for textile production.

“Our work on the bioeconomy in the fashion industry clearly demonstrates the potential for delivering sustainable alternatives to current materials,” he says. “Producing textiles from forest biomass and blue biomass is one way of generating greater value in the circular bioeconomy and upgrading biological resources throughout the value web.”

The Nordic Council of Ministers works closely with the fashion industry and the Nordic Fashion Association on promoting the sustainable production and consumption of textiles and identifying new opportunities in the bioeconomy. One key initiative is NICE – Nordic Initiative Clean & Ethical, a joint commitment from the industry to take a global lead on social and environmental issues.

“It’s important to recognise that the fashion industry is a global industry,” says Johan Arnø Kryger, Chief Learning Officer at the Danish Fashion Institute. “We have a global value chain and a global market, which means that changes in consumer habits around the world will also affect the Nordic Region. This means that we need to reduce consumption and develop new materials, technologies and circular systems that minimise the resource-intensity of the industry at global level.”

The Nordic Council of Ministers has been developing sustainability criteria for the Nordic and Baltic Sea Region bioeconomy, as well as evaluating how the bioeconomy contributes to achieving Agenda 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“The bioeconomy is relevant for all seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, but in the context of textiles, it’s particularly relevant for responsible consumption and production,” says Oddsson. “As textile production often competes with food production for arable land, our bioeconomy work also touches upon food security and zero hunger and sustainable growth, as well as climate action, life below water and life on land.”

Plentiful renewable bioresources
According to Johan Arnø Kryger, the Nordic countries are well placed to develop new biomaterials for the textile industry. The Region is internationally recognised for its sustainable fisheries and forestry, it has a strong and well-developed agriculture sector, and Finland has become a world-leading hub for research into the production and recycling of wood-based cellulose fibres. Coastal areas in the Nordic countries also have access to vast amounts of seaweed and algae that can be transformed into sustainable textiles.

“What these new materials have in common is that they demand high levels of technology but are not as labour-intensive as the current textile production,” Kryger explains. “This presents an opportunity to do what we’ve done with clean energy, and create a large number of jobs and export opportunities based on our know-how. We must think creatively to identify valuable resources and waste streams, as well as ways in which to apply our know-how and technology to create new and sustainable materials.”

Fish skin is a good example of a valuable resource that was previously considered waste.

“Today, fish skin is primarily used to produce fishmeal, but fish leather is a more valuable product,” says Jákup Sørensen, advisor at NORA – Nordic Atlantic Co-operation. “Our objective is to merge the value chains of the fishing and fashion industries and create new growth opportunities in both.”

Sørensen is the project leader of Blue Fashion Challenge, a design competition that seeks to promote the use of new and sustainable circular biomaterials among Nordic designers. “We want to increase consumer acceptance of these materials and integrate them into the fashion value chain.”

Nordic companies take the lead
Two of the Nordic companies that are leading from the front in creating a more sustainable textile industry are global fashion giant H&M and Swedish outdoor company Houdini Sportswear. H&M has a long-term vision of being 100% circular by using only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials, while Houdini Sportswear has built its reputation on producing environmentally friendly and even fully biodegradable outdoor clothing.

“Nature is the ideal circular system, as everything always becomes a resource for something else,” says Eva Karlsson, CEO of Houdini Sportswear. “To be labelled circular, our products must be made from at least 50% recycled fibres, and must also be recyclable. We don’t apply any environmentally harmful treatment and we don’t mix our natural fibres with synthetic fibres. We want to mimic nature, in the sense that nothing is ever wasted.”

This approach ensures that Houdini’s products are pure enough to be recycled efficiently, and that any materials that end up in nature will not cause contamination. The product philosophy is to ensure a long lifecycle by virtue of timeless design, high quality and versatility, and by enabling customers to rent and repair clothing, and to buy and sell it second-hand.

“This is about designing the whole process,” Karlsson says. “It’s not just about product design, but also about a smarter supply chain and processes, using smarter materials, and an eco-system for end-users that prolongs the products’ lifespan even further.”

Karlsson has an important message for the policy-makers who regulate the global textile market.

“Buying virgin polyester involves drilling for crude oil somewhere on the planet, which is high risk, high cost,” she says. “Despite this, virgin polyester is a very cheap fabric, meaning that a lot of the cost of retrieving the oil is not included in the price. At the same time, recycling fibre is way too expensive. Our politicians need to have the courage to move in the right direction.”


Follow our WCEF2017 morning talk “Sustainable Value-Creation from the sea – how and why? Examples from Iceland” live on on
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Read more about the Nordic bioeconomy: 25 bioeconomy cases for sustainable change

“Our work on the bioeconomy in the fashion industry clearly demonstrates the potential for delivering sustainable alternatives to current materials”

Geir Oddsson, Senior Advisor at the Nordic Council of Ministers

“The bioeconomy is relevant for all seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, but in the context of textiles, it’s particularly relevant for responsible consumption and production”

Geir Oddsson, Senior Advisor at the Nordic Council of Ministers