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Fabric of sustainable textile industry is woven in Finland

Global fashion retail group Inditex, parent company of Zara, signed a 100-million-euro contract with Infinited Fiber Company.

Infinited Fiber Company

Companies like Infinited Fiber and Spinnova have seized the world’s attention with sustainable textile fibres. Finland, though, offers a wider range of green solutions for the fashion and textile industry.

Infinited Fiber Company is planning on building a commercial-scale textile fibre factory on the site of a former Stora Enso paper mill in Kemi, Finnish Lapland.

The Espoo-based startup revealed last week it will invest around 400 million euros in converting a building housing a retired paper production line into the factory, which is to have an annual production capacity of roughly 30 000 tonnes – or 100 million t-shirts worth – of its patented regenerated textile fibre, Infinna.

“Circularity is at the heart of our business,” stated CEO Petri Alava.

The export-oriented factory is to provide employment directly to around 270 and indirectly to another 800 people once fully operational in 2025. The construction and installation phase will in the meantime create roughly 120 person-years worth of jobs.

The factory will have an annual production capacity of roughly 30 000 tonnes. Image: Stora Enso

Infinited Fiber has developed a patented technology for converting cotton-rich textile waste into a versatile, high-quality regenerated fibre with a cotton-like feel and look.

The material innovation has already seized the attention of numerous fashion and textile industry giants. Inditex, the parent company of Zara, in May announced it has put pen to paper on a three-year agreement worth 100 million euros to procure 30 per cent of the annual production volume of Infinna.

“We truly believe innovation is key for the competitive circular future of the fashion industry, which is why we are actively working to find solutions and searching for new partnerships, processes and materials to achieve textile-to-textile recycling,” said Javier Losada, chief sustainability officer at Inditex.

“Collaborating with others in new innovative initiatives – such as next-generation fibres like Infinna – is vital to carrying out the transformation our industry needs.”

Also Bestseller, H&M Group, Patagonia and PVH Europe, the owner of brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, have committed to acquiring a share of the future output. Alava told Helsingin Sanomat that altogether 60 per cent of production in the first five years has been sold under binding purchase agreements.

Letters of intent have been signed for the remaining 40 per cent.

World’s third largest manufacturing sector

The World Bank has reported that the fashion industry, the third largest manufacturing sector in the world after the automotive and technology industries, is responsible for roughly 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than international aviation and maritime shipping combined.

The number of garments produced annually has doubled to about 100 billion and the number of garments bought by the average consumer risen by 60 per cent since the beginning of the millennium. Meanwhile, less than one per cent of clothing is currently recycled into new garments and 87 per cent of all fibre input is incinerated or disposed of in a landfill.

Finland can leverage its knowhow in bioeconomy, circular economy and digitalisation to seize the business opportunity arising from the inescapable green transition, believes Business Finland.

Domestic companies already offer solutions covering the entire value chain, from materials and textile production to treatment and packaging, sale and usage, and collection, recycling and disposal. Companies have come up with packaging solutions, including bio-based materials and packaging as a service, that could lessen the environmental footprint of an industry that is a major consumer of packaging material.

The country is globally best known for wood-based fibres, though.

(From left): Mikael Hannus (Marcus Wallenberg Foundation), Herbert Sixta (Aalto University), Ilkka Kilpeläinen (University of Helsinki and Johanna Buchert (Marcus Wallenberg Foundation). Image: Aalto University / Mikko Raskinen

Professors Ilkka Kilpeläinen and Herbert Sixta from the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, respectively, in April received the 2022 Marcus Wallenberg Prize for developing and using ionic liquids to process wood biomass into high-performance textiles, reinforcing the reputation further.

Finland has also adopted the goal of becoming one of the five leading textile recycling hubs in Europe. It has launched a textile collection and recycling pilot that is to expand to a national scale in 2023, two years before the deadline set by the EU. Ultimately it could recycle as much as one-fifth of the textile waste generated across the 27-country bloc.

Partnership for change

Spinnova announced last week it has entered into a partnership with Imogo, a Swedish company known for its sustainable dyeing technique that significantly reduces water, energy and chemicals use.

Spinnova’s eponymous wood or waste-based textile fibre has been used by clothing brands such as Adidas and Arket (pictured). Image: Spinnova

The Jyväskylä-based sustainable textiles developer said it intends to launch the first products dyed with the patented technique by year-end as part of its broader commercialisation “journey”, which includes starting up the first commercial-scale production facility dedicated to its wood or waste-based fibre, Spinnova.

The fibre has been produced at two pilot factories and been used in products ranging from high fashion to outdoor and everyday wear, as well as furniture and home décor.

Producing the fibre requires no harmful chemicals and 99 per cent less water than conventional cotton production. Imogo’s technique, meanwhile, reduces water, energy and chemicals use by almost 90, and dye use by almost 33 per cent – without compromising on bleeding and fading resistance.

“Combining our technologies, we can create a huge shift within the entire industry,” declared Shahriare Mahmood, chief sustainability officer at Spinnova.

Finnish companies have come up with several green alternatives to the water-intensive and overall unsustainable cotton. Image: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

“We’re constantly exploring sustainable alternatives in textile processing to further reduce the environmental impact of the products we create. Imogo has the potential to revolutionise the industry’s dyeing process and has already proven that sustainability and durability go hand in hand.”

The company intends to ramp up its production capacity to one million tonnes in the next 10–12 years together with its investor and joint venture partner, Suzano.

Foundational piece

The waste and sustainability problems of the industry are also the focus of Telavalue, a co-innovation project kicked off in February by Business Finland. Bringing together several companies and research organisations, the two-year project looks to utilise bio-based and recycled materials to build a foundation for a sustainable textile industry in Finland.

The project consists of six business projects and one public research project, relying on, for instance, the chemistry expertise of Kemira.

“Chemistry is integral to developing the desired attributes of cellulose-based fibres. These attributes include strength and absorption power,” commented Satu Ikävalko, the head of microbiology and biotechnology development at Kemira. “Chemistry also plays a key role in enhancing the recycling of textiles.”

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, in turn, has taken charge of developing recycling solutions for textiles made of high-standard, mostly plastic-based synthetic fibres.

The two-year project seeks to build a foundation for a sustainable textile industry in Finland. Image: Telavalue

“VTT has already created processes for recycling plastics in its previous projects,” said Pirjo Heikkilä, the senior scientist coordinating the project at VTT. “They have been successfully tested in the sidelines of technical textile production. We will continue developing our processes to utilise used, dirty, technical products in composite production as well.”

Telavalue complements the work carried out by Telaketju, a collaborative network that had a hand in setting up the circular economy plant for end-of-life textiles in Paimio, Southwest Finland, in 2021.

“It is important to continue the work now when textiles are a hot topic also on the EU level,” said Satumaija Levón, formerly chief advisor at Finnish Textile & Fashion. “We want to do our part in supporting the operations of a network that involves every link of the value chain.”

By: Aleksi Teivainen