Ann Runnel: "We all need to wear clothes, so let's do it sustainably!"

Ann Runnel is the co-founder and CEO of Reverse Resources, a tracking and trading platform for textile waste. Ann has been researching eco-innovation in the textile industry since 2010 to understand how best to scale sustainable innovations. With her background in economics, she is driven by the question: how can a circular economy be set up profitably and efficiently on a global scale?

This interview was conducted by Anette Tiitus and translated by Jaanika Niinepuu, members of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

The circular economy is based on the principle that all the resources taken from nature will either return to nature as a material suitable for the environment or are kept in circulation by people. Are there any factors that prevent textile products from being included in the circular economy?

To my knowledge – achieving bio-recycling in textiles is very difficult. There are some solutions, such as material made of mushrooms. But as textile products require many resources to manufacture; for example, many chemicals and dyes are used to process textiles, it is practically impossible to achieve biological circularity here. That means the whole industry is still moving towards recycling materials in that technical loop so that we could capture, reuse, and keep this material in circulation. We are still trying to achieve the first round of recycling, but we might reach repeated recycling one day.

The main obstacle to recycling textiles back to textiles is their unknown composition. The labels inside the product provide us with information for recycling, but unfortunately, people have a habit of cutting these labels off,  and the labels are also never accurate enough. It is complicated to determine which chemicals and fibers have been used from the material itself – we don't yet have accurate enough technology for this. Therefore, with Reverse Resources, we have set ourselves the goal to find out the material composition from the initial manufacturer. What we want to use is the production waste, the composition of which we know for sure.

Is that the reason why only a relatively small proportion of the textiles in the collection boxes in fast-fashion stores are recycled?

At the moment, yes. However, there are so many projects underway today that this problem will be solved in a few years. Technology is also progressing. I know about three technologies that can take a mixed material and use its different components for recycling. Since new technologies are coming up pretty quickly, completing this loop is only a matter of time.

On the consumer side, it is vital to sort textiles. It's also helpful if we don't cut the labels out of the clothes, so some information is available.  
At the same time, more and more products are coming out with scannable QR codes or RFID tags embedded in the fabric or product so that people cannot remove the product composition information. Also, it is already possible to weave fibers into the fabric, from which it is possible to read the garment's composition. The more textile is sorted and returned, the more it helps to increase recycling volumes.

The concept of the circular economy is relatively logical and convincing. So why do so few companies follow it in their production?

Because the circular economy is so complicated. Whoever wants to adopt this concept must address the whole circle – understand the whole of it, how it works, and how you get involved. There are so many tasks involved – research, finding partners, communication, awareness-raising – that everyone cannot easily accomplish.

I assume that few companies can cover the whole circle alone. So the important part is to find partners who are part of the complete loop.

Some companies do the whole thing on their own. It can be done locally if the company has a community-based goal. It can be done in specific sectors. Lindström's workwear is a good example because there is a particular niche, and it is possible to limit the number of parties with whom to create the loop.

In general, niche-type products are challenging to scale. Things that concern all of us are large-scale systems and solutions. To create a healthy circular economy, all parties involved have to be set up in the same way and cooperate. It is good to work with large corporations because they are involved everywhere.

Does moving towards a circular economy require a change in consumer behavior? What does it mean for the consumer?

It means, above all, that the consumers must be aware of which circle they are participating in. If I buy a garment designed to go to a specific recycling solution later but throw it in the trash unknowingly, it is of no use. This principle applies to any product. The consumer is one part of the circle, and we need to know what role we play.

What are some of your favorite specific or unexpected examples of the circular economy? For instance, using textile waste to make a carpet.

The circular economy is at its best from my point of view when it moves in the same value chain. Turning a textile product into a carpet immediately reduces its lifespan. If textile waste is used, for example, to produce new yarn for a T-shirt, those items can be recycled again. If we use textile waste in a carpet, we tend to use mixed textiles and develop multi-composition products making it much more difficult to recycle it again, contrary to the idea of a circular economy. The best example currently from my line of work is how worn-out cotton garments can be recycled to high-quality viscose garments with the potential of at least a third life-span after that.

I really like all the recyclers we work with because I know that with their help, the material returns to the clothing industry and stays in that chain. So there is a lot of excitement in this process, knowing that we can truly create a chain and maintain it.

A significant trend in the fashion world is sustainability. How to differentiate between the brands genuinely caring about the world's well-being and those doing greenwashing for profit?

I sometimes understand greenwashing, because in such complex topics we also need to celebrate small victories and educate the market with great first steps taken. Yet so many companies are advertising their great possibilities, while they only have a partial solution to the scalability of it. However, knowing how difficult it is to achieve a complete solution, I think that half of the solution is better than nothing. Society will make those companies aware that their answer is incomplete, and they will strive for a more comprehensive solution.

In general, greenwashing is a rather gray area: what is actually greenwashing and what is not?

 I see through my work the will, need, and curiosity of big companies: they do want to solve this problem. Society is putting significant pressure on companies to come up with healthy solutions to recycle textiles.

The clothing industry is one of the world's largest industries with negative environmental impacts. Can the fashion industry be sustainable at all?

It definitely can. We all need to wear clothes, so we need to do it sustainably. The question is: how can we meet our human need to express who we are and feel energized by our clothes? How can we achieve that while using natural resources within the planetary boundaries?

We must also consider that the world's population is growing, and the middle class grows even more quickly. So it is a significant and complex problem. But I am convinced that following the principles of the circular and thriving economy – and seeing the developments in the industry today –, putting a sustainable model together is not an impossible task.

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