Published 2019-12-18

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra Future Fashion’s influence on the industry

Mistra Future Fashion has brought changes in an industry that needs to change. Its results have been useful and Programme Director Åsa Östlund believes that Mistra’s eight-year initiative has been a success.

‘In this research programme, everything’s been useful — in some cases directly, for the fashion industry, and in other cases for further research by government agencies or the UN,’ Östlund says.

As examples, she mentions three Swedish agencies (Environmental Protection, Consumer and Chemicals) are leaning towards research in Mistra Future Fashion in their joint information campaign Textilsmart, which is aimed at consumers. The programme’s results have been disseminated in international forums, and the UN fashion initiative has picked up on what has been achieved there.

Bild på Åsa Östlund

Åsa Östlund, Programme Director of Mistra Future Fashion.

‘We’ve also learnt that things move fast in the fashion industry and slowly in the research world. To disseminate the results faster, we’ve sometimes drawn up customised reports for the sector before the results have been published in research journals,’ says Östlund. She has been associated with the programme since its inception, initially as Deputy Programme Director and for the past two years as head of Mistra Future Fashion.

The programme started in 2011, at a time when relatively few people were talking about the fashion industry’s environmental impact. But some fashion companies saw that the supply of important raw materials was peaking and that new regulations could be glimpsed on the horizon.

From the outset, Mistra Future Fashion was relatively broad, comprising eight separate projects with varying disciplinary emphases. In the second phase, these were narrowed down to four subject themes: design, the supply chain, users and recycling.

One of several practical results from Mistra Future Fashion was a chemical method of separating cotton fibres from polyester ones in textiles in which they were blended. The subproject concerned, known as Blend Re:wind, represents a breakthrough in what has otherwise been seen as a stumbling block in material recovery from textiles.

‘Many garments are made of various blends of cotton and polyester, and when these materials are recovered they’re used for filler materials or otherwise end up lower down in the value chain. By this method, the cotton can become viscous and the polyester can become monomers that may be turned into new polyester or something else,’ Östlund says.

She thinks a pilot plant is the next step. Innovation is important in her view, since cotton–polyester blends are found in products ranging from sheets at hotels and hospitals to stretch jeans, shirts and other garments.

Cotton–polyester blends have also proved to have a less adverse impact on the climate than, for example, pure cotton. The polyester makes the garments or fabrics last longer, they dry faster after washing and they weigh less. Cotton production as such, moreover, is a climate villain.

Seven kilos of refined oil are required to produce one kilo of cotton for T-shirts, according to Mistra Future Fashion. The final Outlook Report on the programme for the years 2011–2019 pointed out the irrationality, from a scientific point of view, of worrying about 100 grams of fossil content in a polyester T-shirt but disregarding the kilo of fossil fuels needed to produce a cotton T-shirt.

“From a scientific point of view, worrying about 100 grams of fossil content in a polyester T-shirt but disregarding the kilo of fossil fuels needed to produce a cotton T-shirt is irrational.

Östlund explains: ‘At the beginning of the programme, we probably thought clothes of natural materials were better, but we’ve reconsidered that. When we’ve done life-cycle analyses, we’ve seen that certain mixed-fibre fabrics often have a less harmful effect on the climate.’

In another Mistra Future Fashion subproject, Swedish and Austrian scientists have designed an enzyme that can cut polymers in such a way that they can be reassembled.

‘That’s an important step in being able to recycle hard-to-handle blends like elastane and nylon, for instance,’ Östlund says.

One of the fashion companies that participated in the programme, Filippa K, has developed a sustainable trench coat. The Eternal Trench Coat is one of this year’s products in the company’s collection. Made of recycled polyester, it has a 10-year-guarantee. The choice of material was made with the support of life-cycle analyses and to obtain a garment with the longest possible life.

According to Östlund, it took a few years before the researchers in the various projects truly started to collaborate and benefit from one another. Ahead of the programme’s second phase, she was a leading force in a reorganisation that accelerated the interdisciplinary work further.

Designer Kay Politowicz, a professor at Chelsea College of Art & Design, has had a long career in the interface between art and academia. She describes the reorganisation as a successful move.

‘Suddenly, collaborations arose that were of a completely different quality. I sometimes sat down with chemists, sociologists and lawyers, and everyone was humble and open, and they all ventured to say uncomfortable things to one another. Many people thought that was innovative,’ she says.

Nick Morley, Chair of Mistra Future Fashion’s Board, says the transdisciplinary approach initially posed challenges, but also led to some ‘extremely fruitful collaborations’ in the programme’s latter part. Morley is reluctant to cite any particular research result as more outstanding than others, but says that the way life-cycle analysis is done has become an established method, used as a tool in design and consumer decisions.

‘I believe the scientific robustness of the results and the researchers’ distinct independence have been of great benefit,’ Morley says.

During the eight years of the programme to date, awareness has grown in the fashion industry. Many business chains have systems for recycling discarded clothing and repairing garments that need it. In materials and design, there is a trend towards greater sustainability that we have not seen before. Business models are also being reconstructed.

Several Mistra Future Fashion researchers are continuing to collaborate, and Östlund, who works at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden on an everyday basis, is trying to be get the industry to implement the new knowledge.

‘There’s a lot in the programme that lives on. What I’m now encouraging most is for industry to take the baton, not to do more research but to implement the results so that industry can benefit from them,’ Östlund says.

Facts — Mistra Future Fashion

  • Programme period: 2011–2019
  • Funding: Mistra invested SEK 80 million
  • Main contractor: RISE Research Institutes of Sweden AB
  • Programme Director: Åsa Östlund
  • Executive Committee Chair: Nick Morley