As Beecycle cares about the environment and authentic home décor, it is important to talk about the materials furniture and home décor goods are made of. Apart of raw materials, such as wood, hemp or steel, textile and its composition plays an important role creating and designing authentic, yet well-functioning home accessories and furnishing pieces. Dina Lingås is a circularity professional, with experience from both fashion and consultancy, with a particular focus on textiles. In the interview she talks about circular textile, sustainable materials and solutions to problematic yet important part of the industry – textile.
Tell us a bit about yourself, how and why you got interested in circular textile.
I have been passionate about sustainability from a very early age. I used to turn off the car engine of random cars and going house to house to encourage people to bring their own bag when shopping and not buy new plastic bags.
However, I struggled getting my head around how to efficiently work with making the world more sustainable. It was only when I discovered the concept of circularity at my last year of university, that everything clicked, and it felt like I finally had found a clear framework to guide my passion and enthusiasm. At that time, I was working as a customer support person in a sustainable underwear company, which allowed me to connect what I learned about the circular economy with fashion and textiles and use it in practice. And I wanted to learn more, which led me to write my master thesis on circular textiles (where I focused on the hotel sector), I went on to work with the same company’s sustainability team, and through this discovered more and more about the devastating consequences of textile production: from the extensive use of petroleum based fibers (e.g. polyester and nylon) which brings huge headache when it comes to the recycling of textile, to the monoculture created by the worlds single-minded obsession with cotton; not to forget the amount of chemicals used in producing viscose; as well as the vast creation of waste from our over-consumption and under-utilization of textile goods. And although I currently work with the broader specter of circularity, textiles and how to make them more circular, keeps being one of my main interests and concerns.
In your words, what is circular textile?
Originally, textiles were made from natural fibers such as hemp, linen and cotton, without the harmful chemicals used for bleaching and coloring. Back then, when a shirt was worn out, it could decompose in the ground and give back the nutrients from the fibers to the soil. Similarly, a modern circular textile is one that can be part of the natural ecosystem and re-enter the natural cycle, however with the complex global supply chains, the presence of trends and increase in synthetic fibers, the picture is more complex. A circular textile is connected to the complete life cycle, from choice of material, the use phase and to the end-of life, meaning after its use-phase. Let me introduce you to each step.
1. Sourcing of a bigger variety of natural fibers grown and recycled non-natural fibbers: For the lifecycle of textile to be circular, the materials used need to work with, and not against, the ecosystem, and they cannot contribute to co2 emissions. Regarding natural fibers, cotton is currently the main source for natural fibers, with 25% of global fibre consumption, and other natural fibers only amounting to 4%. This extensive use of a single plant, creates monocultures in agriculture, negatively affecting the ecosystem. And cellulose, which is what allows cotton to be a textile fibre, exists in all plants and trees in the world. There is therefore a great potential for a bigger variety of fibers, coming from other plants. Regarding synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, these are made from petroleum, and make up 65 % of fibre consumption, contributing to the extraction of fossil fuels. Although such fibers are more durable than natural fibers, and as such contributes to extending the life of clothes, we need to reduce the use of synthetics. If used, it should be made from recycled materials. In addition, both natural and synthetic fibers need to be made without harmful chemicals, to reduce the negative effect on people, animals and ecosystem during production, and for natural fibers, allow them to return to the ecosystem after use. When using add-on such as buttons and zippers, they need to be attached in a way that they can be take apart from the garment. For example, a white t-shirt, even if made with organic cotton, is bleached and colored, and therefore cannot be composted without releasing chemicals in the soil.
Bleached fabric (left) – Unbleached fabric (right). Author – KuSakura
2. Extended use phase: Even if the garment can ultimately come back to the soil, there is always energy, time and resources used in the production phase. A circular textile is therefore one that has a long life. This includes donating those we don’t use anymore, buying second hand, choosing strictly what we really need, washing gently, and repairing when broken.
3. Reuse discarded textiles in other products: When something is beyond repair, what is still useful should be used to make other products. Sometimes we hear term “upcycled” when it comes to the philosophy that if a certain good can no longer serve its initial purpose, we could change initial meaning of the good and give it to the new motive, shape, mission. A great example of this the Danish start-up Forget me knot, who makes reusable gift wrap, inspired by the Japanese Furoshiki technique, out of discarded textiles and clothes.
4. Recycle at end of life: When the item is beyond repair, and without an upcycling potential, it needs to be recycled. Today, only 1% of all textiles are recycled. The rest is sent to landfill or incinerated. In a world of circular textiles, mechanical recycling is used first, then chemical recycling to separate the textiles back to their original fibers, and the circle can start again. But that’s unfortunately, is especially rare.
We see a great deal of clothing brands which began to use recycled textile in their products. What trends (or shifts in mindset) do you see towards circular textile in home decor products?
First of all, people are starting to recycling differently. Before, recycled textiles were thought of as something dirty, something you didn’t want to wear. Also, there has been a (mis)conception that recycled textiles are of poorer quality. Although this has been true in some cases, and to a certain degree still is (during mechanical recycling clothes are shredded, fibers are shortened, making them more vulnerable when they are spun again), things are getting better. Also, there is a great difference in the needs for strength for different items. For socks, for example, which are used and washed often and therefore wear out frequently, it is therefore necessary that the quality of textile is better in order to ensure durability. For home décor products, such as decoration pillows, rugs, blankets, the small difference in fibre-length is less important, and I believe this is why you see more recycled material. Because the durability or strength of the material of these garments does not play the most important role.
Also, I believe people are starting to understand that nothing really goes “away”, even if you “throw something away”. People are starting to see the circle, and how their consumption is part of this, making them more acceptable to recycled materials.
Author Janko Ferlič
What is your newest discovery in textile? (e.g., a new material, maybe improved process of manufacturing a material, etc.)
The most impressing material and process of manufacturing has for a long time been Tencel. This is a green, circular, patented production method of viscose, which uses harmless chemicals in a circular way (reusing 98% again and again). The input material is wood, and I think it is pure magic that we can turn hard chunks of wood into a material that goes under the name “cheap silk”!
Other than that, chemical recycling is one of the really big break-throughs. For a long time, this has only been done on lab scale, but we are now seeing some scale-ups. In addition, chemical recycling is starting to be able to separate textiles made up of a combination of different fibers, such as polyester and cotton. Before, one of the two would be destructed in the process, but we are now seeing innovations that are able to separate the two, in a way that both fibers are preserved. This is going to be very valuable, as most textiles are made from a mix.
Lastly, I think the development of take-back systems and renting of clothing is a very interesting development. We are becoming less materialistic, not storing our items in the closet, but becoming more aware of what we actually need. The connection between this and the increased focus on mindfulness, where cleaning up and being appreciative of what you have, is also inspiring, challenging our need for more clothes.
What major challenges textile industry is facing in the upcoming decade and how could it be solved?
First of all, the transition and the necessary investment in developing new materials (phasing out petroleum -based textiles), new processes, designing differently, looking for alternatives to the current chemicals, new water-treatment and its filtering after recycling processes etc. It will take time. At the same time, the industry needs to work on dealing with decades of non-circular production, investing in better sorting, mechanical and chemical recycling. The key here is to have both thoughts at the same time – both dealing with the vast majority of already produced clothes and producing differently.
In addition, there are new trends that the established industry will have to take seriously. The second hand market is growing (over the past three years, resale has grown 21 times faster than apparel retail. More and more start-ups are investigating leasing, sharing, and take-back models, challenging the established purchase driven and consumerism-based textiles industry.
Lastly, the increasing focus on social sustainability and responsibility; equal pay and decent working conditions, workers’ rights, is getting huge attention nowadays. We begin to witness that the previously kind of invisible production and supply chains are getting more and more media attention towards tackling the problems this industry has, we see more discussions about the issues than previously, which sounds promising. Fashion Revolution is one of the key organizations which has been able to put this on the agenda and increase traction for this textile industry problems. Even though textile industry has many challenges to tackle, we could rejoice that the dialog has been established.