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Innovation

Finally time for the world’s first clothes in circular cotton

We have 11 years left to stabilize our climate, so it’s about time for new initiatives to lead the way. Enter Circulose by re:newcell.

25092019
Words: Johan Magnusson

re:newcell began with a question that the founders had arrived at from different places independently: is there a way to save the cotton that people have spent so much effort growing, from landfills or fires and put it back into people’s closets?

The founders were a group of researchers that had spent a life making pulp and cellulose processes more efficient and sustainable, an entrepreneur that had turned around an ailing Swedish pulp mill (Domsjö Fabriker) into a world leading biorefinery, and a recycling expert that had been asked by brands if there is a way to replace expensive new cotton with the material they’re burning by the hundreds of tons. The group had a feel for the demand, a vision for a technology and the capacity to turn the concept into a profitable business.

— It reads kind of like the beginning of a joke; a recycling expert, a bioeconomy entrepreneur and a group of world leading cellulose chemistry experts walked into a lab… but that is basically what happened, says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Head of Brand.

Together, they provided complementary perspectives on the challenge and a shared vision for turning a looming environmental and resource disaster into an opportunity to change an entire industry for the better. Through a serendipitous meeting on a hunting trip, the idea for re:newcell was born.

— A big moment for us was the yellow dress, says Cavalli-Björkman. It’s a prototype that we made together with Smart Textiles, Wargön Innovation and Svenskt Konstsilke in 2014. (Co-founders) Christofer and Zaheer stood in the lab disintegrating jeans with a kitchen blender, pressed pulp by hand and sent it off for spinning with fingers crossed that it would work. And it did! The amount of response we got from that first prototype proved to the team that they were onto something big. Now, we are thrilled to scale up and continue on our mission to actually change the fashion industry and release the first clothes in the world made from circular cotton.

Circular initiatives are booming right now, what’s so special about you?

— In one word, ”scale”, Cavalli-Björkman states.

— What fashion needs in order to become sustainable isn’t more prototypes, niche products and capsule collections. It needs technology that can scale and that is what we’ve built. At our site in Kristinehamn, Sweden, we run the world’s first industrial recycling plant for cellulosic textiles. There, we can process 30 million garments into a biodegradable and recyclable raw material called Circulose every year. Circulose can then be used by our partners to make virgin quality fibers, yarns, fabrics and garments just like regular viscose and lyocell — no adjustments needed. We are proud of the fact that people could never tell the difference if somebody didn’t tell them.

— As a new material, we knew that Circulose had to do three things in order to make a real difference, it needed to be circular (recycled, recyclable and biodegradable), it needed to be affordable enough to compete with virgin materials and it needed to deliver the quality that designers require. And here we are…

— Of course, we’re not the only ones with this bright idea. There are many ongoing projects tackling the same basic issue around the world. That’s good, there is more waste out there than we could ever handle. In any case, this far we’re the only ones to have achieved any type of scale in operations.

When will we see the first garments in store? And could you tell us more about your partners?

— Right now, we’re developing products with some of the world’s most well-known and sustainability-minded brands, from the high street to luxury. If you know who leads the industry on sustainability, chances are we’re already working with them. The first garments made from Circulose will reach retail in the beginning of 2020. We’re lucky enough to be able to choose who to work with — more than 50 brands, large and small, have expressed serious interest in our material. In all cases, a core pre-condition for us is that collaborators have a credible and ambitious agenda for increased sustainability.

— The two partners we can mention, although not say exactly when their Circulose clothes drop, are H&M Group and Kappahl who both have invested in us. We are incredibly proud to have these influential players on board. But we don’t just work with the giants – there are a number of young, bold and ”born sustainable” brands that try to get it right from start. We want to support them and reserve product for those types of partnerships too. Stay tuned, we’ll have more to share very, very soon.

What have been the most difficult parts in the process until where you are now? And what challenges do you still face ahead of you?

— When developing a new process, everything is hard, says Cavalli-Björkman. Numerous large and small problems crop up in the lab at every point and they all need to be overcome. And when we moved into the industrial setting it was like Mike Tyson said – ”everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. You could summarize all challenges into one; raising capital. Scaling industrial innovations is only predictable in that it’s expensive and requires a lot of financial endurance. We’re extremely proud of what our the engineering team has achieved in a very short amount of time. Looking forward, we have a lot to do and we can’t wait to get started. For instance, we’re investing in logistics, automation, staff and infrastructure in Kristinehamn. We strongly believe that sustainability can’t be allowed to become a passing fad. One of our main focus points is to keep increasing awareness among consumers and get more brands to design for recycling.

What else will we see from you this fall?

— We have just reached a true milestone when we received our first batch with fabric and clothes that has actually been made from Circulose. In addition to introducing Circulose to the world and announcing our first brand collaboration, we’ll be raising money for our next, larger, plant. All we want to do is recycle as much as possible as soon as possible. We’ll keep running the marathon at a sprint pace.

What are your future plans?

— We have bold plans going forward and our ambition is to add capacity quickly and recycle a billion garments into Circulose every year before the end of the next decade. We’re also exploring exciting alternative applications for our product, from furniture to automotive details. People contact us with great ideas and we’re always eager to explore.

— Diana Vreeland said: ”You can see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.” We feel that this is more true than ever. When you see Greta Thunberg on the covers of not just Time but Vogue, I-D and Elle, you know that fashion’s gatekeepers are finally doing what they need to do – drive fundamental cultural change in the Anthropocene.