Earth-friendly fashion is becoming a reality in Finland, thanks to a new technology.
Earth-friendly fashion is becoming a reality in Finland, where the Ioncell startup is refining its technology to make clothes out of recycled newspapers, wood pulp waste and even old discarded textiles that are getting a new life.
The cutting-edge couture is also getting the royal treatment, with Finland’s first lady Jenni Haukio attending a December Independence Day reception while wearing an evening gown made from birch tree pulp. The pulp was reclaimed at the Stora Enso paper and packaging factory in Joensuu, Finland.
“Stora Enso supports the new method of producing textile fibers developed by Aalto University and the University of Helsinki and supplies dissolving pulp as the raw material for the project,” the company said. “The textile fiber used in Haukio’s gown was produced using the new Ioncell method.”
Just seven percent of the world’s textiles are made using wood-based materials, Stora Enso said, while fossil-based products like polyester synthetics and input-hungry cotton account for about 70 percent. To change that – and change the carbon footprint of future clothing – the company invested €52 million in converting one of its mills to produce dissolving pulp needed for Ioncell’s process.
The gown was designed by students at Aalto, a partner on developing the experimental fabric process. “I took inspiration from strong Finnish women, who are represented in the dress’ minimalist features and clear lines. The dress is a promise of a cleaner, brighter future,” said Emma Saarnio, part of a team of designers, textile engineers and yarn weavers, dye experts and dressmaking experts.
While the elegant gown made headlines, it’s just one of the products that Ioncell is making after its researchers have spent a decade on the science. President Emmanuel Macron of France has received a dress scarf made from recycled cotton; there are coats, dresses, ruffly summer tops, even iPad and mobile phone covers, all transformed from waste pulp, newsprint or old cotton.
“So far we are publicly funded,” says the university-affiliated Ioncell, which is meeting its timeline milestones for product development and pilot launch design. “In 2020, we plan to open a pilot plant, a small factory where we can produce textiles for our customers to test.”
Yet as the company notes, Ioncell was first and foremost a research project that’s met with some success. Scientists developed a nontoxic ionic liquid that dissolves cellulose from the plant-based sources, making it useful for creating fabrics and possible to combine with other materials. Water and the ionic fluid are the only two ingredients, and they’re carefully recycled in a closed-loop process.
There are no microplastics that break down in wear or washing, and the products are biodegradable.
Does it feel like you’re wearing wood? Ioncell assures that it doesn’t. The fibers are soft and strong, they say, and measure up to the workload as well as Tencel® or viscose – the latter a cause for pollution concerns in China, Indonesia and India, where much of the global supply is produced. Viscose use also is a concern for brands like Levi Strauss and H&M when targeted by campaigners.
The promising Ioncell process may make for new directions in fashion with an alternative material, at a time when the industry is pledging to do its part in building the circular economy.