Can the Finnish forest become a center for sustainable fashion?
I would never have imagined back in 2011, the year I returned to Stora Enso, that about five years later I would be speaking in a big conference in London wearing a dress made out of our wood fibers. And not any dress, but one designed by Tuula Pöyhönen from Marimekko and produced from sustainable Northern Karelian birch fibers thanks to a revolutionary process called Ioncell.
Our journey in the fashion industry started in the year 2011 when our Enocell mill began to produce textile pulp. Looking back at the development, it has been truly challenging journey that has pushed us to constantly learn new things while questioning the old, always building on our company’s cultural heritage of sustainable forestry and innovative thinking.
Today, the demand for textiles is increasing due to population growth and the rise of disposable incomes as well as the emergence of fast fashion. To give you a little perspective: in the 1960´s, an American man owned six outfits on average, and women owned nine. 10% of their income was spent on textiles, for which they got around 25 pieces of clothing. Forty years later, we spend on average 3.5% of our income for 70 pieces of garments.
The growing textile industry faces big challenges due to an increasing amount of textile waste. In the United States, for example, only 15% of textiles are recycled and the remaining 85%, 11 million tons of garment, ends up in dumps. This situation is not unique to America – textile consumption in Europe on the same path.
Quickly changing trends have led many fashion companies to manufacture small batches of garments, inexpensively, on a constant basis. The market entry time of a piece of clothing from the designer´s table to the consumer has decreased from 18 months in the 1980´s to 3 weeks.
Up to 70% of textiles are manufactured from non-renewable petroleum based fibers, while the share of cotton, the main alternative to oil-based fibers, has come down to 20%. Cotton is a natural fibre, but its cultivation requires a high amount of water required for it to grow. As an example, making one pair of cotton jeans takes about 7000 litres of water, while producing the same jeans using the Ioncell technology only requires 3% of that amount. The water saved, 6790 liters, equals about the amount of water a person would consume over ten years. Additionally, to maximize crops yield, traditional cotton farming uses fertilizers and pesticides which can damage local eco-systems.
The use of wood-based fibres in the textile industry is only 6%. They have a higher cost compared with polyester and cotton, however wood-based fibres are the only fibres in the world that combine the advantages of cotton and petroleum-based fibres: good moisture management and brightness. These facilitate printing detail and a long-lasting pattern. In addition, viscose fibres have a unique set of properties that no other fibre can deliver: lustre and drape.
Since 2012, Stora Enso has focused on understanding the textile value chain better. We are working on development projects such as the Ioncell technology, on which we collaborated with Aalto University, Helsinki University and Marimekko to try and revolutionise the fashion industry with a renewable and recyclable fibre and a transparent value chain. For our part, Stora Enso is at the very beginning of the value chain and we can ensure a sustainable and renewable raw material, whereas at the other end of the value chain, Marimekko creates and provides long-lasting and high-quality designer textiles.