I USED TO BE A PAIR OF JEANS

A new industrial evolution towards a more sustainable fashion
Swedish company Renewcell is a leading manufacturer of sustainable and recycled material
which is leading the way towards a more sustainable fashion, with their secret (and patented) formula. Renewcell takes old clothes, breaks them down using their chemicals, and then produces brand new pulp that can then be sent to production plants and turned into new clothes. While their first factory only opened a few years ago. They have already attracted the attention and interest of big
brands.

I recently had the pleasure to sit down (via Zoom, obviously) with Nora Eslander, Renewcell's brand manager. I wanted to find out a little bit more about the work Renewcell does, as well as to talk about the all-important issue of sustainability as a whole and the
impact that Covid has had on the fashion industry. Here's what I learnt.

Who are Renewcell and what do they do?
Renewcell was founded in 2012, at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, by two scientists who found a way to recover cellulose in textile waste and turn it back into
usable material. This is when Circulose was created, an innovation in sustainable fashion.

Man-made cellulosic fibres such as viscose, lyocell and modal are made from dissolving
pulp cellulose, made from wood. Renewcell's Circulose dissolving pulp is 100% made from textile waste. From the pulp Renewcell makes viscose fibres which are then turned into sheets and sent to production plants. Here the sheets are transformed into yarn and then into fabric to make clothes.
The process is quite lengthy and begins when Renewcell receives the raw material which is currently bought from companies that have large amounts of waste. Zippers, buttons and all elements which cannot be recycled are removed and the remaining material is shredded for ease of work. The chemical process of recycling then begins.

This process could be done mechanically by simply shredding the fibres and then making new yarn from that, but by using a chemical process, Renewcell ensures that the resulting fibres maintain the same quality as the virgin materials. The end result is circulose.
This is the part of clothes production that no one gets to see.

Photography by Renewcell
What's the result?

Whilst Renewcell is still small – there is currently only one factory that produces Circulose which opened in 2017 – hundreds of brands have expressed interest in sustainable fashion and therefore in using Circulose in their production and some important partnerships have already started. These include Levi's, who produce jeans made up of 40% viscose (half of which is Circulose) and 60% organic cotton, and H&M, who have designed a 100% viscose dress, deriving from half wood and half Circulose. In the future these
garments can be recycled and turned back into new clothes.

Considering this seems a very logical way for all clothes to be made, why aren't more companies using Renewcell's technology? The reason is not because it is too expensive or inefficient, but simply because Renewcell is currently too small to produce enough Circulose to match the demand of big brands such as H&M (hence why only 50% of their dress is Circulose).
However, while the chemical formula is top secret and their process is patented meaning
only they can recycle clothes in this way, they do have plans to increase their production
with a new factory being built for 2022 which will allow them to create much bigger quantities
of Circulose. As Nora explained, eventually all cellulose based clothes could be made from
Circulose: "The fashion industry is huge. It's a big mission but it is our mission to change the industry and make it Circular."
Sustainable denim, sustainable jeans, natural fibres jeans, Circulose pulp
Photography by Renewcell
Jeans made with Circulose pulp
Just how innovative was Renewcell when it was founded?

While obviously a lot has transformed in the last 10 years (the last year alone has created an unthinkable amount of change!), I was curious to know what the founders' attitudes were towards sustainability at the time of their discovery.

When Renewcell was founded in 2012, sustainable fashion wasn't such a buzzword and the two entrepreneurs who set up the company didn't see it as a trend either. What they saw were millions of dollars' worth of clothes going to landfills, and the waste that was being ignored. From a business point of view, they saw an opportunity to use something that no one else was using.
They started developing the company, researching and optimising the process but it is only
in the last 2-3 years that they have actually begun selling their products. Clearly a lot of time
and thought has gone into planning and preparing Circulose, and now the challenge is to get
the product to the consumers.

With that in mind, while Renewcell is a business and the aim of any business is to
make money, they are not producing a product that is designed to be a high-end luxury. The
consumers are the people who have the power to influence how we shop and the large
corporations which are driving trends need access to materials that are widely available and
accessible. Sustainability is a movement towards a better future and Renewcell wants to
allow as many people as possible to be part of that shift.

While discussing what sustainable fashion options are already out there, Nora and I touched
on some great luxury brands which are certainly leading the way towards a more sustainable
future in the fashion industry, but whose price point may not be attractive for many.
Renewcell wants to bridge the gap between fashion that is so cheap it is treated as
disposable, and fashion that is too expensive to be accessible. As Nora adds, we need to
"consume less and produce better.'
What about the impact of Covid-19 on Renewcell and the general attitude towards sustainability?

While we are not out of it yet so it may be too early to understand the real impact that the virus has had on the industry, Nora confirms that there seems to be an undeniable change in the way people think about the environment.

When everyone had to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, the concern was that businesses, which mostly see sustainability as a luxury, would ignore their sustainable efforts to focus on other areas. Businesses needed to survive first to be able to worry about how sustainable they were. Obviously for Renewcell this has lead to many questions such as, "Are people going to stop the conversation? Will they put us on hold and focus on other things?".

The consequence of the pandemic is, instead, an acceleration in the efforts to focus on sustainability. This period of lockdown has forced brands to step back and really evaluate their companies. If there is perhaps a positive to be taken from this last year, Nora says, it is that people had the time to consider the practises and processes they were using.

In a time when people aren't leaving the house, and no one can see what we are wearing from your shoulders down, we have become increasingly aware of our clothes and how we dress. Could this be because we have essentially survived the whole year wearing the same clothes, leading us to the realisation that actually, we do not need a new pair of jeans every two months or a new jacket every season?

I asked Nora whether she thought these new attitudes would continue after Covid, and while
she did admit that that was "the million-dollar question", she does hope for a green recovery. "I hope we don't lose track of what we've been discussing," she says. We seem to have developed a better understanding that in order to save our planet and to protect ourselves in the coming decades, we need to make changes now.

In terms of the different attitudes towards sustainability as a whole, I was interested to know
whether Nora thought it was generational or even cultural. Reporting Renewcell's CEO's opinion, Nora agrees that while the older generation is talking about it and is making changes, for the younger generation, there is no option. Activism is not something they do every now and then, being an environmental activist is just who they are. This is definitely highlighted through one of Sweden's young activists, and global influencer, Greta Thunberg, who at such a young age has had such a profound impact.

With that in mind, I was curious as to why Sweden in particular seems to be leading the sustainability movement. Nora believes it could be due to privilege, "If you have everything else, you're able to focus on the future (and therefore sustainability)."

The notion that sustainability is a luxury is definitely not new, as I have mentioned, and many of the leading brands in sustainable fashion only cater for people who can afford high-end prices. However, protecting the future of our planet should not cost the earth (literally) and it should not be a privilege to look after our environment. I am sure (and sincerely hope) that as we strive to create a kinder and more sustainable future, Renewcell's influence and presence within the industry will continue to grow from strength to strength.

Keep an eye out for Circulose in your future sustainable shopping.
Article by Kirsty Turbott
Main photograph by Alexander Donka