Published 2020-12-10

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Knowledge bridges between academia, municipalities and business needed

Influential networks, key knowledge and views on research that culminates in application. Here, three former Mistra researchers currently working in business and the public sector share how their research background is useful outside academia.

Sandra Roos: ‘I hope I can do more good’

During the autumn, Sandra Roos left academia for the position of Head of Sustainability at KappAhl, one of Scandinavia’s leading fashion retailers. Since 2008, she has been researching life-cycle analysis (LCA), with particular reference to inclusion of chemical products and processes in the life-cycle inventory. She completed her PhD in the Mistra Future Fashion (2011‒19) research programme, with a thesis focusing on inclusion of textile chemicals in LCA of textile products.

Sandra Roos, Head of Sustainability at KappAhl. Photo: KappAhl

‘In the textile industry, chemicals are an important issue, and life-cycle analysis won’t be particularly relevant if the chemical aspect isn’t analysed. There are over 150 million CAS [Chemical Abstracts Service] numbers — that is, unique chemicals. So it’ll be something of a Catch 22 situation, since we don’t know which ones are important and that makes it difficult to do an inventory of them. And when we don’t inventory them, we don’t know which ones are used and in what way they’re important.’

Since the textile industry is so extensive and spans several industries and fields of knowledge — from cotton cultivation and polymer production to spinning mills and dyeing mills — an overview and knowledge of all these processes is extremely important.

‘In my current work role, I’m benefiting a lot from the big-picture view,’ Roos says.

Roos was also one of the authors of Mistra’s Investor Brief: Sustainability in Textiles and Fashion, which was published in the autumn and is based on results from Mistra Future Fashion. The programme findings show that of all production, that of clothing accounts for the absolutely largest environmental impact, in life-cycle terms, on climate change, pollution and water use. Reducing the adverse environmental impact of production — by both cutting the number of items produced and reducing the environmental impact of each product — is therefore crucial.

What do you think of these results, in relation to your current work role in a major fashion chain?

‘The fashion and textile industry has an important social aspect, since the great majority of suppliers are in Asia. We need to restructure fast, taking responsibility for the whole supply chain, and both cutting consumption and boosting secondhand value. That way, we can continue to offer job opportunities, but with greater material efficiency.’

Industry meshed with trends and myths

In spring 2022, a chemical tax on clothes and shoes will, it is proposed, enter into force. Here, Roos has extensive use of her research background. With knowledge of which chemicals are used, what materials contain them and their functions, she can help ensure that they are not in KappAhl’s products.

Roos believes that more scientists are needed in the textile industry, and that facts and research are severely lacking in the fashion sector.

‘It’s a trend-based sector that’s also driven by lots of myths. If one company makes clothes out of plastic from recycled PET bottles, all the others do the same, without turning to the science of what actually reduces environmental and climate footprints. More researchers are needed in the industry, but so too are better dialogues between academia and industry, so that the knowledge rapidly becomes applicable. We need to get together and jointly find new innovative solutions to the environmental and climate challenges.’

Do you feel that, with your background, you can do more good in business than in academia?

‘Yes, I really hope so. More analysis and science are needed in the clothing industry. Mistra Future Fashion produced lots of data on, for example, the textile industry’s climate impact, which got a great deal of attention. But personally I think there’s a limit to how far general advice can get us. More needs to happen in practice and I think the specific solutions need to come from the industry itself. That’s a strong driving force for me in my current role, and, with my background, I hope to be able to make a contribution.’

 

Annika Malm: ‘More bridges are needed between academia and municipality’

For four years, Annika Malm was a researcher and unit manager at Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE). For a year and a half, she was also Programme Director of the Mistra InfraMaint research initiative, with the goal of contributing to sustainable infrastructure. Today, she is Operations Officer of Water and Waste at Kungsbacka Municipality. Malm has long experience in the municipal sector and has worked for many years as a co-worker and manager at Sustainable Waste and Water, a department in the City of Gothenburg.

Annika Malm, Operations Officer of Water and Waste at Kungsbacka Municipality.

‘When I started out as an industrial PhD student at Sustainable Waste and Water, the goal was to gain in-depth knowledge and do research on what I was working on daily. While I was doing research at Chalmers University of Technology, I was able to use and test the knowledge when I was at work. The whole of my PhD studies were very hands on, and geared to supporting the municipalities.’

In Mistra InfraMaint, one distinct goal is to awaken the dormant research area that maintenance and infrastructure of water and waste installations in Sweden are. Malm thinks that, in her work in municipal administration, she can clearly see where the research needs lie.

‘Our long-term plan, with Mistra InfraMaint, is specifically to establish research in this area and manage the infrastructure we’ve built up in Sweden. There are hardly any senior researchers in maintenance of water and sanitation networks and municipal roads, and we want to strengthen this expertise, in both academia and municipal management.’

The experience and contact network Malm has gained through her research are of great use in her everyday work. Kungsbacka Municipality is also involved in a number of Mistra InfraMaint projects, and many of her co-workers are participating in research projects to create their own networks and gain more knowledge. The research programme also includes several municipal PhD students.

‘We need to build lots of bridges between academia and municipal administration. Every individual who moves between academia and the public sector or business brings their experience, networks and knowledge, and so becomes a significant bridge. More active work is needed to promote that.’

Malm points out that research projects tend to be inaccessible and sometimes too complex for a municipality to be able to apply the results. Here, the close contact and knowledge from both sides is an important element for the results to be easily accessible and useful.

‘Personally, I love working in the municipal sphere with clear frameworks and goals. At the same time, the doctoral education and the programme director role have taught me lots about structure and the drive to succeed. Being in both worlds is a learning journey that I wish more people had the opportunity to experience.’

 

Annika Stål Delbanco: ‘In-depth academic training is a good foundation for understanding the world better’

Annika Stål Delbanco, a limnologist (freshwater ecologist), completed her PhD at Mistra’s Swedish Water Management Research Programme (VASTRA, 1996–2005). Her research centred on chemical, physical and biological factors that can affect the emergence of undesirable algal blooms.

Annika Stål Delbanco, Environmental Consultant at Calluna.

‘As a doctoral student, I also got a more interdisciplinary focus when my fellow PhD colleagues and I developed a method to simplify the dialogue among various stakeholders at a local water management department. With this method, we sought to enable comparison of various nutrient-reducing measures and to clarify, for everyone involved, what the consequences would be in both socioeconomic and scientific terms.’

Today, Stål Delbanco is engaged in monitoring of water resources, and proposing measures to improve water quality, as an environmental consultant at Calluna, the Swedish ecological consultancy. Early on, she was convinced that she wanted her work applied to spread good ideas and, specifically, improve water resources.

‘That’s why Mistra VASTRA was right up my street. I saw the in-depth academic training as a good foundation for understanding the world around me better, and improving my potential to contribute something that makes a difference. After gaining my PhD, I chose to leave the academic world.’

How do you see that you can use your research background in your current work role?

‘For several years, I’ve been working as a manager, and in that role I’ve benefited from the interdisciplinary approach I practised in the research programme. As a researcher, you’re also constantly finding that the outcome doesn’t turn out as you intended, which forces you to rethink and tackle questions from a different angle. In my current job role, I’m definitely benefiting from the research area, both in terms of content and thanks to my wide-ranging contact network in my field.’

Do you think you can do more good in business than in academia?

‘Yes, for me that’s definitely true. I’m glad I’ve had the privilege of trying out an academic career, but I don’t think it would have suited me in the long run. Interdisciplinarity is an important key to synchronising business with science.’