Finland is Europe’s most forested country, with around 75 percent of its land covered in pine, spruce, and birch. But it is not just trees that are growing – a community of entrepreneurs are trying to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the textiles and fashion industries. According to the Ellen MacCarthur Foundation, the textiles industry, 60 percent of which is clothing, relies heavily on non-renewable resources including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres. It has been estimated that the fast fashion system of take-make-waste as has led to the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles going to the landfill or burned, every second. That’s five trucks in the time it took you to read that sentence, as well as ground and water pollution from chemical byproducts, and many other harmful effects.
Finland is a pioneer in the circular economy, where all materials are reused and recycled, waste and harmful byproducts are eliminated, and the environment protected and regenerated. In this article, we speak with Marika Ollaranta, Head of Bio & Circular Finland Program, Business Finland; Petri Alava, co-founder and CEO of Infinited Fiber Company; and Kristoffer Ekman, CEO of NordShield on the factors that have led to innovation across the textiles and fashion industries in Finland, the key drivers of change, challenges they are facing, and their views of the future.
Cross-industry collaboration and cooperation are defining features in the Finnish sustainable textiles and fashion industries.
“Finland is a small country so we have to work together,” Marika Ollaranta says. “This is especially true when it comes to circularity in textiles and fashion as actors across the value chain need to understand each other and work together to ‘complete the circle.’ It is about collecting the waste, the identification of materials, material treatment and also finding and innovating the reuse purposes for treated textile waste.
“Business Finland is funding the innovations projects where researchers, companies and public sector either together or alone can do the development of new technologies and business models. We encourage co-innovation as the innovation process is much faster when the learning is shared.”
Petri Alava, CEO of Infinited Fiber, is solving the problems of textile waste and production based on non-renewable resources using a unique technology that cleans and breaks down textile waste at a molecular level, and then use the remaining cellulose and regenerates it into new textile fibres that look and feel soft and natural like cotton.
“Collaboration is the only way we can change things for the better,” he says. To make textile circularity an everyday reality, we need a whole ecosystem of like-minded partners, and collaboration on multiple levels. For example, we are working with the municipal waste management company Lounas-Suomen Jätehuolto, which is building a refinement plant that will process all of Finland’s household textile waste in the future.”
Kristoffer Ekman, CEO of NordShield, is addressing the harmful leaching of chemicals and heavy metals and bacterial resistance that derive from common antimicrobial treatments for textiles. NordShield’s solution is a unique wood-based, biodegradable technology derived from forestry side streams. “We work with partners that ensure our raw materials are sourced from responsibly-managed forests which do not compete for land with food crops, are not genetically modified and do not require land-use change,” he says.
But what is driving the industry towards circular approaches?
“The awareness of the harmfulness of currently used solutions in the industry is increasing,” Mr Ekman says. “This means that governments are working on phasing such solutions out through additional taxes or other restrictions, and by changing other regulations. Mr Alava agrees “The European Union has taken action to speed up the shift towards circularity, for example with legislation on textile waste collection becoming mandatory in 2025. ”
Another driver of change is consumer awareness. Mr Alava say “At the end of the day, it is consumers – all of us individually and collectively – who decide what we buy and use, how long we use items for and what we do with them when we no longer need them.”
“Consumers are more and more aware of, and worried about, what they are buying and what is being used in these products” Mr Ekman says. “Consumer demand is really what is driving the change in the industry.”
Looking to the future, the community of innovators in Finland is optimistic. “There is a lot of new, sustainable material innovation going on, as well as reusing of materials for the industry. I feel that bringing scalable solutions to the market, such that are designed to leave nothing but goodness behind, are the only way forward,” Mr Ekman says.
“The future looks good. What is clear is that the industry wants to – and has to – shift away from virgin resources and the wasteful linear model of production to regenerated materials and circular production models,” Mr Alava says. “Circular textiles will become mainstream, I truly believe that. This means that our work is by no means done – quite the opposite. We are now on the brink of really starting to make an impact. It won’t happen overnight. But it will happen.”
Ms Ollaranta says there’s a need for greater collaboration to deliver on the promise of a circular approach to textiles and fashion in the future, “There is lot of room for more information and knowledge sharing for textile manufacturing companies and fashion brands in order that the industry is aware of all the new more sustainable options. And the sustainable option are already available for use.
“Nationwide roadmaps to support the innovations are critical – for example a carbon neutral circular economy strategy for Finland exists. Also important if you are in government is to have the right competencies and funding available to support innovations arising from industry. But please do not limit yourself to national activities. Cross-national co-operation is needed in order to make the sustainable change happen at the pace that is required.”
To support developing countries explore the potential of circular economies, UNDP’s Climate Promise in collaboration with UN Environment Programme developed a global guidance note on countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions. UNDP has also been working closely with countries to develop sustainable consumption and production strategies and private sector engagement plans.