Story | 08/16/2023 09:14:43 | 9 min Read time

From forests to catwalks - How Nordic countries became a hub for a new textile revolution?

Rachael Pells

Journalist

Over the past few decades, the Nordic region has become a thriving hub for sustainable textile innovations. For outsiders, it’s easy to attribute this development to wealth and a “can-do” attitude typical of these Nordic countries. But the reasons behind the modern wave of innovation run much deeper.

In the heart of northernmost Europe, a quiet revolution is underway. Tucked away amidst breathtaking landscapes of dense forests and serene lakes, a cluster of pioneering companies is spearheading a remarkable shift towards sustainable and environmentally conscious textiles. Nordic innovators Spinnova, Infinited Fiber, Kuura, Ioncell, and more – are making waves internationally for their work developing new types of sustainable fibres from cellulose and waste materials such as straw.

And it’s all thanks to one of our most familiar natural resources: trees.

A Legacy of Nature and Innovation

Hannele Kauppinen-Räisänen works as a consumer researcher and marketing lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Like many people who live in and around the city, she still makes time to walk in the forest with her dog every day.

“The forest for me is a way to empower myself. It’s the place where I go to renew and refresh my brain, to restore my sense of peace and creativity. Actually, I couldn’t live without it.”

Finland is not alone in its appreciation of the forest: from time immemorial, Nordic people have lived in close harmony with nature. Forests in both Sweden and Finland make up around 70 per cent of each country’s land coverage; in Norway they cover more than a third. These forests, once vital for survival, continue to be the lifeblood of the region. It is no surprise, then, that wood-based textiles have found fertile ground here.

Nordic countries have not historically been a globally significant producer of textile feedstocks such as cotton or flax – and are therefore unencumbered by the weight of outdated industries, allowing them to envision and build a new generation of textiles. By turning their attention to wood-based alternatives, they sidestep the environmental challenges associated with traditional farming and manufacturing.

Centuries before sustainability became a buzzword, these resourceful inhabitants were crafting shoes out of birch bark, embodying a spirit of ingenuity and adaptability that still permeates the region today. Trees have provided shelter, fuel, and even food: during years of famine and again during the 20th century wars when food was rationed in Finland and elsewhere, “bark bread” – substituting flour with ground up tree bark – became a staple part of Nordic peoples’ diets.

“Trees have given us everything, they really are incredible,” she says “Because we are remote and we are surrounded by the forest, seeking solutions from this natural resource is a part of our DNA.”

The concept dates back through agricultural history, too: farmers had to learn how to respect and nurture the forest in order to make sure the supply of fuel lasted through the winter but also that the forest is able to recover in time for the next spring.

“The life-cycle is protected naturally – it’s something we almost do unconsciously,” she explains.

Now, following the plastic revolution of the 20th century, society is coming full circle and returning to wood for sustainable solutions in the quest to reduce and replace our use of fossil fuel materials.

Support for research and entrepreneurialism

It’s a familiar saying that money doesn’t grow on trees, but where cash is made available for innovation, good ideas will surely flow. This forest-centric region enjoys, a healthy start-up scene, and a number of sustainability initiatives have sprung up with support from R&D funding.

Larger companies are incentivised to collaborate with start-ups, too: UPM and Stora Enso work with small businesses by leasing out their manufacturing facilities, for example, which helps them to scale up their operations faster. All of this happens for a good reason.

“Our most powerful natural resource is brainpower,” says Ali Harlin, one of the leading researchers at VTT, the state-owned Technical Research Centre of Finland.

“We don’t have oil or coal reserves to sell; we have water and forests. It’s important to not have to rely on our neighbours for help, and so I think this understanding has contributed to this being a population of ideas and entrepreneurialism.”

Since the digital revolution took off in the late 20th century, the Nordic peninsula’s paper industry has been in decline – and so the Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish governments have faced pressure to find new sources of income from forests and future-proof the forestry economy. Behind the scenes, the Nordic governments have played a pivotal role in nurturing the textile innovation revolution by earmarking funding to support research and innovation in these fields.

One prominent player is Harlin’s employer VTT. Many of the companies leading the charge, including Spinnova, Infinited Fiber, and Ioncell are either offshoots of projects that germinated within VTT's hallowed halls or VTT has supported their development. This support has created an ecosystem that fosters collaboration, propelling these startups towards success which benefit all involved.

“Thanks to research efforts, in a time period of 50 to 70 years, we have re-entered the market,” says Harlin, “but actually we have been studying the properties of wood for more than 100 years already – it has been a part of the backbone to technology development in these countries.”

Thanks to the development of nanotechnologies, the past 20 years in particular has opened up a new level of understanding. Spinnova, for example, produces a cellulose-based fibre that emulates the properties of traditional cotton, but without toxic chemicals. It takes 99 per cent less water to produce than cotton and can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality to the fibres.

UPM, meanwhile, is working to develop and manufacture wood-based renewable glycols, which help replace fossil-based plastics in clothing products such as polyester.

These innovations are needed also for the forests themselves, says Harlin. They generate “decent economic value” from the forest, which gives communities – and governments and leadership – more incentive to care about the forest and look after it, he notes.

“The forest has always been our home, our hiding place, and to an extent our bank account. Making the forest financially sustainable therefore is at the centre of our society’s existence – and Finland would be a harsh country without a society that really works.”

Importantly, the foundations of this entrepreneurship and innovation also come from this working society. Nordic countries have highly-educated populations – something made possible by free university education systems that encourage degree qualifications or specialist training for all its citizens. The welfare state model, which emphasises collective responsibility, further reinforces this commitment to the well-being of the planet. These psychological factors create an environment primed for sustainable innovation and inspire the pursuit of greener alternatives.

 

Sustainability as a guiding star

Fashion faces a difficult transition period. In recent years, the desire to become sustainable has fallen far ahead of the practical ability to do so for many manufacturers.

“Fast fashion has really been the motor of the polyester market explosion, and the really bad news is that because these items are poor in quality they just get thrown away,” Marvin Strüfing, UPM’s sales director for renewable glycols explains. Glycols are a key material for polyester as they make up one third of the fabric.

“In the past companies have been pretty reluctant to make the investment to ensure their materials are hard-wearing and easily recyclable – they would rather claim to be sustainable when really they are not.”

Crucial to making the industry truly sustainable is thinking about the recycling aspect of materials and the product “end of life cycle”, he believes.

“The key to making fashion environmentally viable is thinking about how we can help companies to make an easy switch to wood-based glycols over fossil fuel ingredients with a high carbon footprint.”

As a German native, it’s clear to Strüfing that the Nordics are unique in their approach to innovation.

“I really believe these countries are leading the way and inspiring change elsewhere,” he says.

It may be partly regulatory rules that allow for this – Finland for one has a target to become carbon-neutral and the first fossil-free welfare society by 2035.  

“Working within the EU space there is a clear incentive to reach sustainability goals,” Strüfing notes, “but also it’s the cultural attitude. I would say generally the Nordic countries are small populations with large natural areas and they have this inherent understanding of the environment and a desire to work with it, not against it.” 

 

Author

Rachael Pells

Rachael Pells

Journalist | Rachael Pells is a journalist and author specialising in science and research. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including WIRED, The Guardian and Research Europe. Her latest book, Genomics: How Genome Sequencing Will Change Our Lives, is now out.
 
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