The Future of Textile Recycling


I recently had the chance to have a great conversation with Nora Eslander, Brand Manager at Renewcell. An innovative textile recycling company. Their recycling technology dissolves used cotton and other natural fibers into a new, biodegradable raw material called Circulose® pulp. We talk through the companies inception, the technology and the future of Circulose®



Transcript

Josh

Welcome to the first instalment of the J A conversation series. My name is Josh, and I'm the founder of J A. A fashion brand taking a holistic approach to sustainability. In this series, we'll be talking to people who are moving things forward in their chosen field, or just have great information to share, whether that be in fashion, arts and culture, or health and well being. In this first instalment, I had the chance to have a conversation with Nora Eslander, Brand Manager at Renewcell an innovative textile recycling company.


Nora

My name is Nora Eslander, and I work as the brand manager at Renewcell. And I've been working at Renewcell for about a year now, a really exciting year for us. So I'm happy to be on board.


And a bit of background from Renewcell. We're a Swedish textile recycling company. So it was founded about 10 years ago, but from by a bunch of scientists, who discovered this special technology, or process for how to decompose the cellulose in cotton, and make new material from it. So together with some entrepreneurs, they founded the company and today we're actually producing this material at industrial scale, and launching clothes in stores together with brands, which is really cool. But it's been kind of a journey for about 10 years. And now we're really working on scaling up this technology so that we can actually make a change in the fashion industry and create circularity in an industry where has that has been very linear for for a long time.


Josh

Yeah, extremely extremely. That's really exciting. You, you work specifically with waste materials. Is that right?


Nora

Yeah, we work with any discarded textiles. So we buy the textile from sorters and collectors. So it can be both post industrial, and it can also be post consumer waste. The most important part for us is that we want to be the last step. So we don't want to take clothes that can be resold or used or or amended in any way we want to use the clothes that cannot be used anymore. So kind of keeping the hierarchy of the textile waste.


Josh

Yeah, yeah, exactly. You want to keep you want to keep those garments in in the cycle as long as possible. people wearing them


Nora

Yeah,


Josh

Getting the most out of them.


Nora

Yeah,


Josh

And when that's not possible anymore, they come to you.


So what are some of the sources that you receive these garments. How do you get these garments?


Nora

It depends. One of our new partnerships, or we've been working with them for a long time is as a company called bank and Vogue. So they're this Canadian company that has stores secondhand stores around the world. Beyond retro, we have it in Sweden, and I know, they have sourced in UK as well. So they sort and collect all kinds of clothes and the ones that they cannot sell in their stores they sell to us so that we can buy it and use it in our factory where we produce our material. So so that's one kind of partnerships, but we also we work with different sorters and collectors of the textile waste.


Josh

Okay. Yeah. So tell me a little bit about the process of the once you've received those garments, what happens then how does that work?


Nora

Yeah, of course, we take the garments into our plant, we have a plant here in Sweden, in Kristinehamn, where we take in the clothes and we take away first of all, we take away the zippers and buttons and all the metals that cannot be recycled. Then we shred the material or we shred the clothes into smaller pieces. And this then goes into these different steps where where it becomes new material. So the first step is a chemical step where we separate out synthetics such as elastane and polyester and so on. And then what remains is basically pure cellulose which is then dried into sheets of Circulose which is our material and while we sell so we produce dissolving pulp, which is can it can be difficult for anyone who's not really into all the fibre technology. But it's it's usually made from from wood. So it's usually the solvent wood pulp, which you then use to make fibres from and these fibres then go into the supply chain of clothes. So you make the yarn, you spin the fabric and then it becomes new clothes. So we're really at the end of the supply chain, or the beginning of the supply chain of producing clothes?


Josh

Yeah, you're, you're at the start again and then. So maybe a textile mill will purchase that from you is that correct?


Nora

Yeah, so it's first made into fibres, and then yarn and then fabric. So it's all these kind of different stuff. But our place in the supply chain is kind of to close the loop between the waste that cannot be used. And then the first step of producing pulp, which is then made into fibres and clothes, and so on. So kind of closing the loop on this supply chain that has been very linear. So we produce clothes and then we, we throw it away, and it turns some landfill and so on. But instead, we're actually using that waste in a new way.


Josh

And then so once something's been made out of out of Circulose, how many times can it go through that process? Or is it an infinite thing?


Nora

I mean, the we haven't really recycled Circulose because we want our garments to be used longer. But we know and we've done tests, so we know that it can be recycled up to seven times, which is the same as for paper and keep the same quality. Of course, it can be recycled even more but to remain the same, the same quality, up to seven times. Yeah.


Josh

But it's biodegradable or compostable? Yeah,


Nora

exactly. It's biodegradable as well.


Josh

Okay. Okay. So under what conditions? Is it biodegradable? Does it need to be an industrial process? Or is it could it? Could somebody?


Nora

I'm actually not sure the the process for for I know we've done different tests on it, but I'm not sure under which conditions? I think that Yeah, I actually don't know.


Josh

Yeah. Yes, that's really cool. And so in terms of the chemicals that you're using to break down the garments, are those like non toxic chemicals? Are they?


Nora

Yeah, of course, they're non toxic. And we're in Sweden, where we have our plant, it's highly regulated when it comes to chemicals, so we don't use any chemicals that can be harmful. And we also use the chemicals in the very close loop. So for example, we use water in our process, but the water is then cleaned from any chemical. And it can actually be released out to the river next to the plant again, once we've used it. So it's really about the creating systems, closed loop. So we don't, we don't have a big impact that other productions have.


Josh

Yeah, that's quite nice. So you've got your kind of the energy sources that you're using on a loop as well as the product.


Nora

Definitely.


Josh

Yeah. And then so in terms of uses of Circulose, have you had kind of have you put it out to market has it is it in the market yet? Can people get it?


Nora

Yeah. So we started producing it industrial scale back in 2018 19. And then we had our first sale of batch of Circulose. So in 2000 and or this year, last year 2020. We, yeah, we had our first launches so we we made a dress together with H&M, a blue dress, which was out in stores in March. And then in during the summer in July, we actually launched denim jeans together with Levi's.


Josh

Okay,


Nora

So that's our two first launches and and then we have our next launch coming up with a Danish fashion house called Best Seller who's also going to launch this this year so we have different launches coming up but that's the one that's official as of now. And we're excited to get even more clothes out there so you can actually buy, buy the the jeans and the dress in stores right now.


Josh

What was the feedback from from from the the jeans and the dress? Have you?


Nora

Really great. Yeah. So the denim jeans with Levi's the important part aspect for us there was to show that this is the same quality and the same pair of Levi's that you would purchase anyway. It's just made in a much more sustainable and circular way. So the feedback from that launch was really great. And yeah, really happy with them. We're looking forward to getting even more garments and showing what is possible to do with circular innovative materials.


Josh

Yeah, yeah. And your your collab I saw your collaboration with with H&M. They're obviously a massive, global brand. Somewhat controversially, they've they've had some some allegations against them in terms of paying their workers fairly and and how their workers are treated. So what's your view on working with such a massive brand and on one with maybe a chequered reputation?


Nora

Yeah, of course, I mean, H&M has been really great for us and in our, in our scaling of production they've been, they've invested in us, and they've also been engaged in developing this collaboration. So they have been very important for us. And in general, our, our mission is to change the whole industry. So we want to make a real impact on this huge, huge industry, which is the fashion industry. And, and that has to be done at scale. So you have to change the really big brands and the big productions to make the real change. And I mean, we love collaborating with the smaller sustainably borned brands as well, because we, we love what they're doing. It's so important. And the work is really, really, really important for the change. But it's also important to make a change where it's much harder and where most of the impact comes from. So So for us, that's kind of our view on it that if we want to make a change in the fashion industry we have to do it at this large global scale? And that's also our mission with with building our next factory which, which we're in the midst of doing right now to produce at the largest scale? Yeah, I keep coming back to scales, but it's important in this industry, that you you make the big impact. Yeah.


Josh

Yeah, you need the large volume. And I think, obviously, H&M can provide that for you. And they've, I think they've got a new CEO. Now, I think that that new, some new codes of conduct, and things like that to try and tackle their issues.


Nora

Yeah,


I mean, you can always do, you can always do, develop and do better things. I mean, H&M, has a lot of great initiatives. So it's also important to give the credit they they deserve in those areas.


Josh

Yeah, yeah, definitely. You mentioned briefly that a new factory, or a new plant that you're building? Can you tell me a little bit about that.


Nora

Yeah, of course. So the this year has really been a big year for us, because we've signed the agreement for our next plant. So it's going to be here in Sweden as well. Up in Sundsvall, Where we're building this much larger plant, and it's going to be able to produce up to 60,000 tonne of material a year Circulose a year, which is about half of Sweden's textile. What do you call them purchase? So it's a it's a huge step for us. It's a small step in the industry, because it is such a I mean, the volumes we're speaking about, in terms of the whole industry is crazy. But for us, it's really important that we can produce much more so that we can sell to even more brands. So we're in the middle of building the plant this year. Last year, we we focused on the financing part, and now we're building the plant and it's going to be up and running next year. So 2022


Josh

Yeah, yeah. I saw you recently IPO'd. So you're a public company now. So what was some of the kind of thoughts and strategy behind that? Was that part of the scaling up idea?


Nora

Yeah, so that was part of the financing for the next plant to get the money, we need to build this huge plant. Because it is quite costly. So that was that was the one one part of the IPO as well.


Josh

Yeah, yeah. And then in the future, have you got any kind of any plans to build plants outside of Sweden?


Nora

Yeah, of course. So our our plan is to keep building more and more factories. So this is just the first step and then hopefully in in some years we have around the world so that we can also produce in different areas where it's needed and where the fibre production and the textile production is taking place as well. So definitely in our 10 year plan, yeah.


Josh

Okay.Yeah. What kind of scales or volumes Do you need to get to in order to really make a dent on the industry?


Nora

I mean, it's a it's a really really big industry. So you can I don't think, I don't think you can do too, too much. But so for us, I mean, we've been able to launch it clothes in stores. But the goal is, of course, that people can walk into a store and choose clothes made from Circulose. So that's also, like a big part of why we're branding Circulose to the customer it is a strategy to make it to make it easier for a consumer to make conscious choices. So today, it's kind of a jungle out there. What is sustainable? What is sustainability? How is it produced, like, the regular customers don't really know the story behind the production of clothes. So we're trying to brand Circulose in a way where it can, it can fit into to all the clothes and people can just walk into a store and recognise immediately that okay, this is something recycled from from old clothes, and then you know, intuitively that it's, it's better for the environment.


Josh

They can feel safe in that choice. They can pick up Circulose and not have to worry


Nora

yeah, exactly, yeah, that's the main goal. Yeah.


Josh

Yeah. Interesting. Interesting. So do you have any kind of plans to work with some smaller brands or any, like concept projects? or?


Nora

Yeah, I mean, one part that we're doing with Circulose and talking about circularity, in a, having a broader conversation about around it. So we also want to influence culture, because culture needs to change as well, it's great that the bigger brands can just adopt this material into their existing production chain. But it's also important that we change the way we look at the Fashion or any anything for that matter, and look at it from a more circular perspective. So that's also something we're trying, we're using the platform Circulose to talk about these issues. So we're doing something called Circulose projects, which is a platform for us to do different projects around circularity doesn't have to be necessarily producing clothes, it can be other things. For example, we made a hanger from our material. So, instead of instead of using it and doing fibres, we kind of shaped the paper like pulp into a hanger. And and talked about the issue of hangers, and how were you using and discarding hangers within the industry. So kind of these different projects. And we're, we have more to come this year as well, which I'm really excited about working with smaller designers and artists around these different topics, just to start the conversation and to actually discuss these issues. But also do it in a very cool and and visually nice way so that it doesn't have to be. It doesn't have to be downgrading, it's more about up-cycling something.


Josh

Yeah.Yeah. That's quite interesting with the hangers, have you come across any other use cases for Circulose that could be interesting?


Nora

Yeah, we've also tried different testing nothing and nothing set about different packaging, which could be really nice as well. But because I mean, that's kind of the point with the hanger as well, we're actually transporting our clothes in a way that's really unsustainable. So if you just look at the, the plastic packaging, or the paper packaging, and so on, just to get our clothes from A to B, it's really unsustainable to do so. So definitely something we're looking into as well. If you can use I mean, there's so much textile waste out there. So if you can use it in other ways, as well. I think that would be really cool.


Josh

Yeah, yeah. I think you might have seen on that blog that I featured companies using mycelium. So using mushrooms as packaging, as well. So yeah, people are trying to find innovative ways to use use these kinds of products. So your your materials based off the chemical cellulose. So have you ever thought about using kind of any kind of agricultural waste or things of that nature?


Nora

Oh, yeah. I mean, we're always always when we're looking into different things. I mean, for now, there's so much cotton waste out there textile waste, so it's not really it hasn't become an issue and I don't think it will for many years.


Josh

Have you have you seen an impact from COVID on your industry at all has played any kind of part?


Nora

Um, so in in general, I think it's been the same for the rest of the society I mean factories have have had to close down and lock down has caused different delays and so on but I think from our perspective we've been very fortunate in sweden we've been able to start continue our our our process and production so but in a broader perspective i think that has actually accelerated for us because we've noticed that some brands have taken the time to actually take a step back and consider their supply chain look at their supply chain what are we doing here what's happening and then contacted us to see how can we change this and how can we make it more sustainable so I think it's very unfortunate for for the companies that have had to slow down and close down and so on but it has also given them the time to to reflect upon their production and what they're actually selling and so on so definitely some positive from it as well in terms of sustainability


Josh

yeah, so have you found that part easy in terms of are brands reaching out to you wanting to be able to use Circulose or collaborate with you or have you had to do quite a lot of marketing to kind of get it out there how's that been?


Nora

So it's definitely a mix I mean we've reached out to a lot of companies that we want to work with but we're fortunate enough to that this is something that everybody is looking for a lot of brands want to make a change and they want to become more sustainable and circular and so on but it's i mean it's difficult if if you don't know how so definitely there are a lot of brands and designers on reaching out just to hear more we've been in I mean we've been in discussion with a lot of brands I think it's about around 100 brands so so the discussion is definitely there the interest is there but then of course it's also another thing to actually take the step and integrate it into your supply chain and produce the clothes and so on but it's it's amazing to see the interest that's out there to to make a change in in many many brands.


Josh

yeah so how did you how did you come to work at Renewcell so what was your kind of introduction to this world of sustainability and textiles?


Nora

Yeah I think i've always wanted to work in fashion and to do something with it but I mean it's also a very scary industry and polluting industry and the last couple of years I realised that I don't know if I if I want to work within with this and selling this if I can't do it in a sustainable way and then I found Renewcell and that was like the perfect match of doing something that it's actually making a real real change and hopefully it will have a big impact on on the whole industry I mean that's our mission to change fashion it's not very humble but it's it's definitely an interesting mission so I think I just just realised that this is this is this is a company that's doing something actually doing a real real change


Josh

There seems to be a lot of innovation coming from Sweden, Finland what do you think drives that kind of innovation from that part of the world why do you think that is?


Nora

I mean in some parts it's interesting why it's why it's specifically Sweden as you say Finland as well I mean Stockholm has had so many great green tech companies last couple of years and also within this area it's definitely a mix of different things from our perspective or from our company was started at a university so it was scientists who had the, I mean had the resources to to start doing these kind of things so it's definitely comes from that as well and also I think just in general you can really see the interest in sustainability here and in Sweden it's very clear it's growing all around the world but I mean some parts has come further than others and I think Sweden is definitely one of those countries and for another example is here in Sweden we just this last year had a new new production responsibility kind of law came out where the producers of textiles will have to make sure that they take care of the waste that they produce and that comes from them which is a really big step in this industry to actually hold the producers and the brands responsible for what they're producing. I think that is a really remarkable and I'm, I really look forward to seeing the results from this and how we will impact how they produce and how we discard and how we recycle the clothes.


Josh

So when did that legislation come in?


Nora

I think it was released in December, November 2020. So they've been working on it. And we've been, we've been part of the project as well and discussing these issues. But I think the legislation will start this year, I think. So it's a it's a huge step. And it's gonna be really interesting to watch how, how it evolves? Yeah.


Josh

Okay, great. So you've got members of the team who are kind of liaising with maybe governmental figures on these practices? And,


Nora

Yeah, I mean, we as that's also one part I mean the Swedish government is working with this very actively. So they've reached out in different forms and projects and asked for our opinion, because we're working with this. So we have a lot of knowledge within the company of this and what we need as a recycling company, company. And so, yeah, we've been engaged in different projects with this, which is really great for us as well.


Josh

What are the kind of what are the major milestones for Renewcell next, what's the big goals? And a few big goals?


Nora

I think the, what we're really focusing on now is getting the plant up and running in Sundsvall, that's going to be a huge, huge milestone for us. And once that's up, we we hopefully can just continue our upscaling. But then also, we're excited to get out more clothes and to launch with different brands. So we want to show that there's really diversity in what we can do and in the quality of the clothes that we can produce. So to not say not saying too much, but I think there's some really cool projects and launches coming up this year. That's going to be huge for us as well.


Josh

Great. That's really exciting. Yeah, definitely be looking out looking out for those. Yeah, this has been really, really informative. I've definitely learn a lot. Where can people where can people find out more about Circulose and Renewcell? How can they find out more?


Nora

We have two websites. So we have the Renewcell website. And we have Circulose as well. So Renewcell.com, and really circulo.se, where we have a bunch of information, and about what we're doing and so on. And I think in terms of social media, I think Instagram is where we're mostly active, and updating about different things happening within the company. So if you want to keep keep the updates, I think Instagram would be the best way to reach us. And also reach out if you want to, if you have any questions or want to learn more please reach out. We're happy to answer any questions.


Josh

Yeah, any any small brands out there with good ideas for what Circulose could be used for.


Nora

Please, please


Josh

Reach out to that so that you've got a collaboration tool or?


Nora

Yeah, so you can actually if it if it's about brands or projects, you can reach us at projects at circulo.se so we but it says on the website as well. There's some information about these projects we're doing as well. So please reach out if you have any idea small or, big. We're just really excited to hear anything.


Josh

Great. well um, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what happens for Renewcell in the year ahead. Yeah. It's really cool, really cool innovation. Yeah, we'll keep in touch and wish you the best of luck over the next few years.


Nora

Yeah perfect thank you so much for having me.