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How Estonian startups are contributing to the revolution in the circular economy of the textile industry

Living by the slogan "Buy fast, wear slow", it is more and more about sustainability in the Estonian textile industry.

‘What is happening now in the circular economy reminds me of the story of how people envisioned the internet back in 1994: no one is able to predict how exactly it will change our lives,’ claims Ann Runnel, who got into this branch of the economy six years ago. She wants to solve the massive problem of leftover fabrics in the garment industry, and since Estonia represents only a fraction of the waste creation in the industry, she’s starting where the masses are: Asia.

In cooperation with Reet Aus, a pioneer in upcycling in Estonia, Runnel was writing her thesis on why entrepreneurs focus on sustainability in their businesses. She ended up in Bangladesh, a country with a population of 168 million, which over the past decade has become the second largest readymade garment exporter in the world, just behind China.

‘I realised that one designer brand can solve 1% of the waste problem of a factory,’ Runnel recalls. But there are around 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh, which all combined create 400 000 tons of textile production waste per year – including all different types such as yarn waste, cutting scraps and fabrics – an amount that equals 1.2 billion pieces of clothing. Every single person in India could get a free T-shirt if the recycling of textile waste were to become common practice in their neighbouring country.

Runnel registered her company in 2014 and since then has been travelling to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Hong Kong at least once a quarter. Reverse Resources is cooperating with a network of recyclers, with a capacity of over 5000 tonnes per month, they are ready to source their waste transparently through the new platform. Brands like H&M and Levi’s are among some of the largest parties who are keenly looking forward to the results of the current pilot projects.

Reversing Resources

‘Many of the world-renowned brands outsource the work to a large number of factories that are very intensely regulated,’ Runnel rejects the Eurocentric view that underage workers earn lower than average salaries, working overtime in harsh conditions in the sweatshops all over South-East Asia. The real challenge lies in making the production cycle more transparent, she claims.

‘Being so used to living in a digital society, it’s difficult to imagine the digital gap we face in these factories: how they still use paper and pen to run the operations.’ Reverse Resources offers the producers an online platform that enables each factory to track their production leftovers in real-time as well as access information from other parties in the industry – how much and what sort of leftovers are available and where.

According to her vision, the recycling processes need to be reversed precisely where waste is created. So far, all the leftover fabric gets collected into big heaps of fabric and is sorted later; Reverse Resources will help sort the waste instantly.

Currently, the textile producers who want to recycle leftovers will have to go through the tedious task of testing all materials themselves, making it a lengthy and expensive process. These days, more than 60% of all the textiles used in the garment industry are made of polyester, an easy-to-produce and cheap material that wears out fast and leaks microfibres into the water system each time you wash your clothes.

‘So far, the polyester leftovers have been used in furniture factories as mattress filling or burning it to make bricks,’ Runnel brings an example. These days there are a handful of companies trying to work out innovative solutions to recycle existing materials but all of these technologies are either still in lab or experimental phases. ‘In 3-5 years we’ll definitely see this in mass production,’ Runnel predicts.

Making leather in a lab

Another branch on the verge of a breakthrough in the circular textile and fashion industry is the creation of fabric out of other industries’ leftovers (using one’s waste as another’s raw material is one of the key elements in the circular economy, also called the circular feedstock or industrial symbiosis). A few examples stemming from this field are currently being tested in labs around the world, spanning mostly fungi- or plant-based materials. Spanish-founded Piñatex is probably one of the best-known example, creating leather-like material out of pineapple leaf fibres.

Since pineapples do not grow in Estonia, local startups will have to find means to extract components from locally available resources. Gelatex Technologies is developing an environmentally friendly alternative to animal skin with imitation leather made from gelatine, a natural collagen taken from animal body parts like bones and joints that usually go to waste.

‘Our technology enables the creation of material that is chemically identical to real leather,’ Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca, one of Gelatex founders, explains. ‘That way we give higher value to waste and can make up to 5 times more material from the same animal.’

In other words, Gelatex wants to solve the problem of burning more than 5 million tons of animal waste by literally sucking the marrow out of the bones and creating a non-woven textile out of the gelatine mesh that can be produced without using any poisonous chemicals.

Gelatex has nothing to do with so-called “vegan leather”, which was a craze some time ago until users realised it’s simply an oil-based chemical product. Many other innovators are trying to find solutions for reusing waste materials but so far many of them still use oil-based composition materials. 95% of leather used in the industry is chemically tanned. Vegetable tanning as the alternative is terribly time consuming and therefore very expensive.

Meigo Fonseca studied garment technology and became interested in ecological textiles while working for Baltic Intertex, which did product development for Scandinavian fashion designers. She met Märt-Erik Martens, a researcher who had been working on gelatine-based materials for medical use during his studies at Tartu University. They founded Gelatex in 2016, which has by now attracted the interest of many big producers of consumer goods.

With their lab operating in Tartu and having gone through three stages of the Greentech accelerator ‘Climate KIC 2017’ in Berlin and Tallinn, they’re now off to the TechStars accelerator in Indianapolis, US, and Meigo Fonseca feels the time is ripe for a “real thing”: ‘My main goal is for the sustainable material to become a new norm.’

Sustainable living

Many similar innovative projects have to spend several years in incubation in the lab to wait for the right momentum. And for some, that moment might never come.

‘Academia could be the trend setter in this field,’ says Kätlin Kangur, who herself has studied Creative Sustainability at Aalto University in Finland and is now reading an introductory course on sustainability for designers at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn. Last year she initiated the Green Group inside the Academy to start solving the issues of their own building.

Yet she claims that sustainability is a very vague concept. ‘Many people understand it simply as recycling. How to give up some of your personal comfort in exchange for the overall well-being is a far more challenging task. Changing your habits and lifestyle is much harder than replacing some physical items in your life.’

Kerli Kant Hvass dug even deeper into this field, looking at the post-consumer aspect of the garment industry. In her PhD thesis “Weaving a Path from Waste to Value – exploring the fashion industry business models and the circular economy” she researched the role of fashion brands and their responsibility to minimize post-consumer textile waste through innovation and industry collaboration. She worked with brands such as JACK & JONES, NAME IT, Filippa K and Eileen Fisher.

‘The fast fashion industry is constantly picking up speed, there are so many new collections coming out and the logistics-cycles are becoming more and more complex,’ she claims. Over the past 15 years, people have started to buy twice as many clothes as they used to, wearing them 3 times less often. It’s the classic chicken or the egg causality dilemma: are the prices cheaper because the quality is lower or vice versa?

Buy fast, wear slow

Kant Hvass is now helping run a pilot in partnership with the Estonian Re-Use Centre and a Dutch company Wolkat. To prevent around 50 tons of textiles ending up as landfill every month due to the limited recycling and reuse capacity of used clothing in Estonia, Wolkat will send them to Morocco where they are sorted by colour and material type, shred and then spun into new yarn from which new cloth is woven. From this cloth, products such as blankets, bags and laptop sleeves are made.

The reason why the materials are currently sorted in Morocco is the cost of labour and the long-term expertise in recycling that Wolkat has gained over 50 years. Ideally, at some point the work will be done in Estonia. ‘So far the re-use system in Estonia has been catalysed by the simple pleasure of getting rid of your old things but consumers are becoming much more aware and want to be able to follow the whole cycle,’ Kant Hvass summarises.

Ann Runnel also claims that she herself has become so much more aware of her own recycling habits that she even takes all of her worn-out socks to the H&M waste collection stations because she knows that these will end up in a sorting factory in Germany and then be recycled in India. But is it actually sustainable for the socks to travel so far? Runnel explains that circular economy will initially start working where there are enough resources. In Estonia, the amount of waste is so small that is not economically profitable to start sorting waste.

The circular economy goes much deeper into economic models and will look into the matter of how to make profit by reusing materials several times without constantly pulling in new resources. All chains in the system become interconnected: logistics, design, production, sale, communication, product take-back and end-of-life treatment. It creates interdependence for all parties involved.

She believes that once the industry is ready, the politics will follow. In order to play her role both in changing the rules in business world as well as political, Runnel was recently elected as an expert for EU Mission Board for Adaption to Climate Change.

‘We are currently talking about the first round of recreating value for the resources but the goal should be an infinite number of rounds,’ she sums up the challenges that are yet to be unfolded. ‘The Reverse Resources platform helps to build new supply chains and trace waste end-to-end from the source of the waste up to recycling, shining light through the current black box of textile waste trading and making sure that we can all know that the waste really reaches the best new lifecycle.’

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