Shades of grey
There’s been a surge in research into sustainable fabric innovation in recent years. As consumers become savvier, more aware, knowledgeable and climate conscious, producers and brands alike are being forced to innovate. No longer is it enough for a material to be ‘high-tech’, ‘functional’, ‘cutting edge’; now it has to be all those things while at the same time ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘low-impact’.
“I think this is brilliant,” says Christiane Dolva, Fjällräven sustainability manager. “We don’t have to make quite the same compromises anymore.”
That doesn’t mean compromise is out, though. “No material is perfect. They all have impacts,” explains Christiane. “That’s why we call it our preferred materials list, not a sustainable materials list. We opt for a material that is better than the one before it.”
Our in-house material development team is highly progressive. Supported by our brand mission to be at the forefront of sustainability, they seek out, try and test a wide variety of new materials. Some of them make it onto our preferred materials list, the fabric bible for our designers.
This gives us a broad mandate. Our product developers can look at both natural and man-made materials to find solutions that combine functionality and sustainability into that perfect mix. We actively choose not to pursue one path, be it natural or man-made; we feel this is limiting and too simplistic. Instead, we follow many paths.
“With materials there’s no black and white. It’s all a scale of compromises. Some customers ask us why we can’t replace fleece with wool to avoid microplastics. On the same day another person will ask why we can’t swap wool for a synthetic alternative to avoid using animal-derived materials. It’s really tricky.”
Instead we look at improving both synthetic and natural materials. For example, with wool we’re moving in the same direction as we did with down a few years ago. We want to ensure full traceability in the supply chain. Why? Because then we can insure the sheep are being treated with respect and humility. We can also monitor the land, to ensure it’s being used responsibly.
With cotton we’re switching to organic and investigating the ins and outs of the Better Cotton Initiative.
But as natural materials have their downsides – cotton requires lots of water and land to grow, for instance – we’re also looking at synthetic materials. But where these are concerned we’re trying to move away from non-renewable, finite resources. Therefore we’re looking at bio-based materials, oils made from plants rather than fossil fuels.
Then there is a third road we’re pursuing: recycling.
“I usually say if a material has ‘recycled’ as a prefix it’s of interest to us. Of course, you need to look at each material in detail. Some require so many resources to recycle it’s not really worth it. But when the quality and functionality is good enough and the impact is low enough I’d say recycled materials are always preferred.”
Recycling is not new. The term has been around for more than half a century and the action of re-using has been around far longer. For example, the ‘spill’, off-cuts or left over from fabric production has been used to make other garments for decades. Previously, however, these ‘off-cut garments’ were of lesser or poorer quality and therefore lower prices. But this has changed. Through blending and using new production techniques, fabric integrity and thus quality can be maintained. Our Re-Wool products are made from the wool that is cut away to make first-run garments. Our suppliers mix the spill wool together, blend it with a small amount of virgin wool and weave it into new sweaters.
The use of this type of material, off cuts from the factory floor, is known as pre-consumer waste. This material has never reached a consumer. It’s the easiest type of ‘recycling’ as it doesn’t require turning the so-called waste into another type of material. No sorting or additional energy is needed either.
Post-consumer recycling, on the other hand, is more complex. It has received a lot of coverage recently, particularly as the world is waking up to the immense problem with plastic, but few news articles dive into the minutiae.
“Let’s take polyester, for example, which has perhaps the most advanced recycling systems in place. Most post-consumer polyester that’s used to make new clothing is not made from old sweaters and t-shirts. It’s usually made from plastic bottles. Little sorting is required and there are good systems in place for collecting this type of waste. You could argue this is recycling in its purest form, as it’s taking a discarded product and turning it into a new product. Using production waste, like the wool in our Re-Wool sweaters, is a pretty obvious solution and good example of this type of pre-consumer recycling,” says Christiane.
If we want to use old clothing to make new items of clothing, the picture gets more blurry. Once you’ve collected a load of used textiles you then need to sort them into different types of fibres. Even if the labels are still present and readable inside the sweater and pair of trousers, sometimes the fabric mixture is so complex that the product can’t be sorted as one type of textile.
“Then there are the chemicals. You don’t know what type of chemicals were used when making that cotton t-shirt or polyester sweater. The chemical management aspect is really challenging. Many argue that chemical recycling – whereby chemicals are added to textiles to break them down into polymers again – deals with this. But if – as is most common – you just shred the fibres through mechanical recycling, the chemicals remain in the garments as they go into recycling. This is just one of the complex aspects of recycling.”
There are many more such as scale, cost and energy expenditure. When the raw oil price is low, for instance, the benefits of recycling are wiped out.
“This is why we constantly re-evaluate and have a team dedicated to researching and testing new and current materials. Our preferred materials list is never static.”
And because our design process takes two years, on average, we have to constantly look to the future, while keeping our feet firmly in the present.
Images: Daniel Taipale @dansmoe