By the end of last year my brother (16 yeras old) asked me, whether I could support his newly formed school company with 10 Euros. Those 10 Euros symbolized a small share in the company and I joyfully said yes and was excited to become shareholder for the first time in my life. I asked him ” What excactly am I shareholder of and what exactly is this part of ?” ” It is an extracurricular activity, supported from JUNIOR . At JUNIOR, high school students set up their own student company, distribute their products to customers and earn real money. learn what the reality of entrepreneurs looks like – by trying it out for ourselves.” “Super cool! What is your business like?” ” We make products from license plates that aren’t used anymore by their car owners . ”
Allthough my brother already hinted into the direction of circularity by highlighting the concept of “waste to value”, little would I know that they would fully develop a sustainable circular business model over the next months. And little would I know how their small business idea would receive growing attention from different German newsoutlets. And most of all was I joyfully amazed, when I heard that their company and efforts had made it as far as to compete in a Germany wide student entrepreneurship competition.
Now, why am I that enthusiastic about their idea? It fully reflects not just a simple circular business model, but also a business model that is sustainable. So what’s a sustainable circular business model? To me that means that it is needs based.
First of all, many people need a car. Nowadays, a car might be almost as important as food. Something we likely cannot say no to, especially if we live rural and need to go to work. Even if we rented a car a la car-sharing, cars would still be needed. And with each car, a licence plate is needed as well. There is almost no expiration date to a licencse plate, yet each licence plate might have an end to its life such as when a car is not needed anymore.
There are of course many more needs based products. Such an example is clothing with the original aim to serve as protection from environmental hazards. However, many clothes nowadays are promoted in such a way that they do not fullfill this basic need anymore solely, but rather support the buying of new clothes that have little functional value. Let’s think of a pink glitter high heel instead of a boot that keeps our feet safe. In addition, fashion trends frequently change, particular by season and again, this encourages consumers to buy more and more, adding to the pile of sustainability disaster, form a social but also ecological perspective.
What purpose or need are these shoes fullfilling?
This differs to a licence plate, which again is needs based and therefore does not promote consumption of a new license plate to begin with. Because of that it is “sustainable” by origin. Now this product is also circular, because it can be transformed into a new product without having to recycle it. Recycling for instance, is linked to the lowest form of circularity, because a lot of energy is used to take materials apart and to transform them. A license plate on the other hand, can stay as it is , and only needs to be shaped into the desired end-product. “Only” to be used careful, because the students still create everything by hand and it takes quite some time.
What’s my favorite catch on their business model? That’s OMG that they had thought about the concept of “emotional durability” in their business model. Emotional durability bascially means that a consumer of a product feels strongly connected and therefore, wants to keep their product for as long as possible. That’s crucial if we talk about product life-cycle extension. What better product is there, than one made of a license plate of a car, with which the owner has experienced so many adventures and spent so much time with? I can’t think of one.
So you guys, your school, JUNIOR and most of all your amazing business UP3 super rock. You win my special sustainable circular business award 🙂 Interested to learn more about the work? Comment or message me and I will connect you.
A circular business model adds onto a sustainable business model
I am a huge fan of the Circular Economy and business models for the Circular Economy, because they can help to capture the value of the product during and at the end of the life and likewise add on to the notion of “Sustainable Business Models”. Because materials and products “circle” , less pressure is put on the environment and therfore enable a more trustworthy notion of “sustainbility” i.e. producing in regards to a trees’ growth time without supporting deforestation. Such business models focus for instance on renting or leasing products. Renting out a product also stimulates the use of more durable “sustainable” materials to avoid repair costs. Although the price of production might increase, financial value is captured and returned over multiple renting periods.
Renting instead of buying
As example, instead of buying furniture for a few semesters (let’s think about students with a low budget), furniture could be rented and returned, instead of being thrown away at graduation. The latter happens frequently and had always amazed me as a student. Renting furniture, for instance, would put an empahsize on producing materials that are more durable and repairable and students or other customers likely take more care of it as they otherwise might have to pay a repair fee (just like when renting an apartment with a deposit). In following such a business model, less pressure is put on the environment i.e. trees, as products stay longer in the system. More happiness might also be provided to students, who can now afford to have furniture at home, that has not been pre-owned multiple times or furniture that matches their identity and therefore well-being. Likewise, they might even save costs as they don’t have to deal with graduation furniture deposit arrangements. 😀
Woop, woop, isn’t the circular economy fantastic and sustainable?
Yes, the idea of such a circular economy sounds fantastic, because it can help to save resources and minimizes waste. So, what’s the catch? Because customers are ought for new products on a frequent basis not all circular business models are sustainable. This particular accounts to those circular business models that encourage consumption instead of minimizing it. Such business models might be those that focus on short-term rentals. Short-term rental is not sustainable if it promotes customers to rent more products for various occasions be that for multiple seasons or meet-ups as oppose to promoting products to last or products that cater the customer’s identity and needs.
The problem with short-term rental such as for fashion might also imply, that although goods are taken back, they may not necessarily circle in the next season, as fashion or other products become outdated and therefore disposed. Therefore, there is also a lower incentive to invest into the ecological sustainability of a material or product. Likewise, these models also influence consumers into constantly seeking for the new and therefore encourage the desire for personal up to identity change. “What I have is not good enough anymore, What do I need to have to be accepted? What if I don’t follow trends? Who am I? What do others think of me if I have the same for too long? Is it okay to always wear the same pair of pants to different occasions? “. – Of course it is okay! 😀
What’s a sustainable and circular business model like?
Ideally a sustainable and circular business model therefore caters around the aspect of “promoting to need less, promoting materials and products I identify or create a meaning with and to promote products and materials that add value to my well-being.” These type of business models should fill a consumer need, instead of creating a psychological need for customers to buy something they don’t need to begin with. As an example, my friends will love me, regardless of me wearing a special dress for easter or my casual street wear / outfit. Of course, changes are fantastic, but do we need them daily or weekly?
A sustainable and yet circular business model should be needs oriented
A circular business model becomes sustainable, when it caters around “our needs” and “identity” also. One of my favorite brands that supports such a business model is “OurChoiceFashion“. Besides its focus on durable and sustainable materials like leather, it also take into consideration aspects of time-less design, which allows customers to wear their shoes with multilpe outfits for various years. For customers to continue wearing their favorite shoes, they have implemented a repair service, that allows for shoe parts to be upgraded and returned back to you.
Something new should not be the primary sales objective of a business model
If we as customers feel like needing to rent or buy products that we never needed before, we think that what we have is not enough. We might therefore feel that buying becomes an essential part of our time spend, when quality time instead centers more around nurturing friendship and self-care. Think about a memory in which you enjoyed company or shared a meal. Does the memory make you more happy or the dress you were wearing as part of your memory ? 🙂
How can we then better promote circular business models?
Ideally, we would like customers to use their products for as long as possible and have them feel connected to it. We may also want to focus on a market-need and niche like student furniture rental. Likewise, can focus on design that centers around season-less colors, genderneutral styles, designs that fit into various waredrobes, furniture and other interior designs that easily match with other colors and of course purpose. For instance, I really enjoy up-cyling old furniture into new once by giving it a new life. Wouldn’t it be great to sell repair-kits in additon to pre-owned furniture to customers? Doing so would allow customers to feel more connected to their products, just like a child or even an adult that bakes a cake or builds a sand-castle or an image to be proud of. Often, we keep these products for as long as possible : ). Likewise, companies remain profitable – A win win situation.
Geissdoerfer, M., Vladimirova, D., & Evans, S. (2018). Sustainable business model innovation: A review. Journal of cleaner production, 198, 401-416.
Parguel, B., Benoît-Moreau, F., & Larceneux, F. (2011). How sustainability ratings might deter ‘greenwashing’: A closer look at ethical corporate communication. Journal of business ethics, 102(1), 15-28.
Wilson, M. C. (2013). A critical review of environmental sustainability reporting in the consumer goods industry: Greenwashing or good business. J. Mgmt. & Sustainability, 3, 1.
Almost eight months ago, I moved into my new apartment. I had not really rented my own apartment yet as I most often rented rooms or small studios with furniture in it. So I felt very much pumped and excited. My first thoughts wondered on how I was going to fill the empty space? Long story short; with a couch, a small and larger table in the living room and another foldable table and 2 chairs in the kitchen.
Though, I was really happy with my apartment, something didn’t link with the kitchen. It felt just like a kitchen and I used my table and one chair with an average of 30-60 minutes a day ( Fast eater? ). Though the table and the plants around it averaged around 6 square meter. 6 square meter that are being heated every day and that were basically not used unless I was eating and was cooking, though my face was not directed towards the table but the cooking utilities.
Besides the space not being used much, I also felt it was empty; though filled with some furniture. Likewise I did not feel connected to the materials and neither had I created a specific feeling other then “needing to have a kitchen table and chairs” in the kitchen. But what else should be there? Are there laws on how space needs to be designed in apartments or can we go wild with it? Can we make our homes our homes, or should we make our homes the homes of interior cataloges? Or could we design homes, based on how we want to feel? Yes!
After liking the idea but having no clue, on how a kitchen space should feel like, I decided to free my mind by giving away my furniture. 4 chairs, which were quite functional could not be-resold, because ?? no interest and possibly minor material demage. Also, the material could for sure not be repaired. So they were happily donated.
The already pre-owned table, which was made of solid wood with a fantastic material quality, could be re-sold for 20 euros (as oppose to the initial price of 40 Euros). I felt it was difficult to re-sell the table, because it did not look as perfectly shiny as when I bought it. Though, unlike the chairs, it was possible to “refurbish it” due to its solid wood quality and if I had done so, I could have probably re-sold it for 30-40 euros. But then again, I would have made some € losses, because of the refurbishing materials needed so.. naaah. Did not.
Though, I sold the table, I still wasn’t sure how I wanted the space to feel like. So for a couple of days cat and I decided to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner on the floor. Eating on the floor, that made me feel connected to Moroccan friends; I liked it, but not too low, because well I like to sit on something. And then I thought about other space I felt very relaxed and comfortable at. And there it was “libraries, lounges a la James Bond, coffee bars, tropics, Jazz “. Though, lounges a la James Bond stuck in my head. Why James Bond though? I guess I like the feeling of mystery, smartness and strenght. So could I create such envirnoment and if yes, what would it need? A cigarre? No , but a fancy chair.
I needed a fancy chair, for sure. I was certain by 100% . But what is a fancy chair? It was defenitly a lounge chair and the very fancy once from the movies are most often made with leather.
One could now ask: why not a synthetic or vegan leather chair? Simply, because there are no! feelings that I could possibly relate to syntethics only unless the imagination of a chemical wizzard and because I would not be sure how to maintain synthetic leather. Usually, with many synthetic or cheaply produced materials, they are difficult to maintain and last but not least to recycleand most of all to re-sell! They may also break more easily and I really wanted this chair to be the real deal. I wanted it to last a life-time . I wanted to see it age and shape my own James Bond history into that product that I did not have yet….
Dedicated to find the real life-deal – that I could afford- I scanned through a secondhandmarket platform, where consumers re-sell preowned items to others. Its more a local or regional type of site. Well, so there were some leather chairs that looked quite nice, but here I was weighing around 60 kg, doing a little weight lifting without car and there was no way I could have it transported. But there it was. The real deal, waiting for me, for 43 WOW Euros, only 200 km away from me.
And so I took my chance, called the owner, asked to send it via post, realized the many complications with the product, because the leather was not much bendible (how great!) and I decided to pick it up the next day via train. I knew it was worth it. Just when I saw it, I felt this instant connection. I loved how the previous owner maintained it , it was real thick leather, a nice upper cut, nicely aged in time- giving me that instant mystic , luxurious old and fancy feeling. Not only that, but the comfort also outweighted many other chairs I had previously been sitting in.
To be honest, I never had a better train ride, and never before had sitting and waiting been that comfortable. Also never before had I realized what an amazing panorama view one could have, if a chair was placed into the direction of the window in the train. Never had I felt such James Bond, advanterous but likewise luxurious trainride than this one. It was a James Bond (whatever James Bond at that point means) experience in itself. And so I was also congratulated by the train staff for my fancy way of travelling. 😀
And of course, the real deal and I eventually made it home, where it now fits well in my tropical lounge home. Now James Bond chair and I will have a sit and think about the feelings we wanted to create around us and based on that choose new materials that make us happy and according to my favorite interior designer Kelly Wearslter – are at the same time useful 😉
Space and Sustainability?
Besides the fun – much space is often not used efficentily, and we may pay a higher price for rent or houses, to have that extra room or space we do not use much. For instance, in families kitchens are used actively more often then bed rooms. So there is the cost-question on what type of space you need, what for and how you can design it to fit your needs.
On the other hand, a lot of materials are produced cheaply with a short-life. Buying materials that are more durable, last longer, have a higher re-sell value and can also be more easily maintained, provides yourself but also the industry incentives for sustainable production – > Circular Economy : ) . Though there is for instance much debate around leather – leather still remains a waste product and using the material for multiple years, might be more beneficial than the use of synthethics, that likely have to be replaced more often.
Of course, I am not a designer and neither does my space now look like from a James Bond movie, but being connected, a story or a feeling, also motivates us to keep materials longer and it also helps to create homes that reflect us, our feelings – homes that feel like homes.
I am almost 30 years old and when I look into the mirrow, I recognize those small and yet growing wrinkles on my face. They were always there, just very small, but lately I feel they appear in greater depth. And so there are other bodily changes that manifest themselves on my skin. Those are some changes in my hair structure, some hair gets frizzier and thicker then it used to be and eventually my teeth aren’t as shiny bright white as they used to be before my mornings began with a cup of coffee routine. [My teeth appear whiter on the image below, because I assume that thats an integrated function of my and nowadays everyones phone…]
While I am usually very happy with myself and any wonderful changes my body undergoes as I age, I felt that I needed a boost last week. Suprisingly that appears to be the result of me researching sustainable and circular business models for the fashion industry and hence, scanning fashion magazines, social media posts and anything related to beauty and fashion for weeks. Though I feel I am quite robust against these type of “influences”, somehow they began tickling my interest for a wardrope change and beauty tuning.
I hadn’t been very curious about the paradox of modern beauty in a while and yet I felt it was time to rekindle with that type of interest that I happily persued as a teen. However, this interest quickly stopped as I went through the beautyshelves in one store. What caught my interest was the advertisement of a make-up remover titled with ” Erase your face”.
Earsing… when I think about erasing I thought of school or any other moment in my life, when I wrote something that later was not important or something that I wrote by mistake or something that needed to be erased to be corrected, or just was not supposed to be there at all. My face.. when I think about my face I think about my identity, those natural eyebrows I have, any unique facial feature that turns me into that woman I am today, any interaction I have and any interpretation that others associate to me , when they see my face. But erasing my face? NO WAY!!!
Of course, the commercial does not mean for anyone to truly erase their face, but this type of advertisement can give people the feeling that their current look is not enough; that the way they truly are is not enough. And in doing so, it removes that sort of identity that makes you – you and me-me.
The advertisment made me skip then more through other shelves and my desire to tune my face a little bit, turned into a social-cultural dilemma. It made me realize how heavily beauty industries are pushing new beauty standards and norms to sell their product, that the product in itself, becomes a burden and supports a crisis of identity – the ability that the self is not enough; that you need to smell a certain way, that you need to look a certain way, that you need to be a certain way to be accepted.
Wouldn’t it be more fun, if companies would promote products that promote that natural you? And what responsiblities have beauty companies to begin with? Should they tell you how to look or should you tell them how you want to feel like and thus, how products could help you? Should they promote creams and products that help your skin to be protected such as from the cold and heat, soaps and shampoos that support your hygiene instead of “sparkly, wrinklesless perfect skin ” ?
Sustainability is not just about the ecology
Sustainability is not just about ecological products, it is about sustainable production and consumption patterns, it is about a system change that crosses the interface of social, ecological and economic dimensions. If our own identity was promoted more, we would not feel like we needed to consume so much and so often and likewise, companies could possibly produce less, with higher quality and higher standards. There would be more happiness, less waste and ideally fairer environmental and social conditions to which goods and services are being produced.
And besides all, isn’t individuallity what makes us truly unique and human? And thinking about it, so far I was not rejected for a job because my eyebrows weren’t trendy enough.. I think I want to keep it that way and you should too!
One of the many reasons that make me support bio-based materials, is their untapped potential as circular material. There is no sand or mineral that can transform itself as a result of anerobic digestion processes as ecological and energy efficient then bio-based materials.
Transforming bio-based resources has multiple benefits. One of them is the fact that we use re-growing organic matter that (quickly) captures carbon, we then move it or simply transform it and at the end of the materials’ life-cycle it can become [ideally] one with nature again- dead organic matter.
In addition, using, re-using, up-cycling and recycling bio-based materials will be one of the key components in tackling the climate crisis and accounting for environmental responsibilty as well. The reason is that bio-based materials can be transformed into other by-products along the value chain and therefore aid in reducing scope 3 emissions (nex tto scope 1 and 2 emissions).
Scope 3 emissions are those emissions that occcur outside of control of the company such as transport and waste disposal. They constitute up to seventy-five percent of a company’s emission footprint and therefore inhibits a firm’s ability to pursue the most cost-effective carbon mitigation strategies (Downie and Stubbs, 2013). Another disadvantage is that scope 3 emissions are not accounted for in the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Our current GHG inventories are therefore incomplete, or misleading.
Yesterday, I watched an excellent Webinar by UNDP on the Circular Economy and a New Generation of NDCs. It was highlighted that a country could be well on track to achieve its NDCs as most of the production, where emissions are occuring, have been outsourced. But if we would look at emissions from a “consumption” perspective”, countries would be much less likely to meet their NDCs. This particular relates to the fact that only scope 1 and 2 emissions are accounted but not scope 3 emissions.
Type 3 emissions can be largely reduced if we look at bio-based materials
When we look at the bio-based model of the circular economy, lets say for housing, it is relatively easy to point out that organic waste can be used for multiple purposes. On the image below, waste water is used and transformed into energy, which is again used to supply energy for the household and other applications.
This model can also be applied to entire cities such as on the image below. This model also runs on the integration of renewable energy and bio-based waste to generate energy and add value to the urban setting as well. The model would not function, if it would not incorporate organic waste.
The bio-based economy is more efficient then the non-bio based economy
Of course, circularity also works with other non-biobased materials, but there are limits to their re-utilization and their potential in mitigating scope 3 emissions. In the webinar an excellent example of a “smartcrusher”, which breaks concrete back into its homogenous ingredients was pointed out. I like that it is possible to reutilize these ingriedients, but there are emission limits towards their reutilization and value additon.
Bio-based materials are the answer to carbon neutrality
On the opposite, if we were to adapt more bio-based materials, we could use less finite materials, create value from organic waste products and meanwhile, add value throughout the production. An excellent example for me is bamboo, because of its versatile industrial applications and alternative to steel.
If we look at the production of bamboo boards, each waste component can be used and transformed again either in the form of energy [i.e. gas, electricity] or products [i.e. pellets, charcoal, bio-char]. I like the image of a wood production process below, because it illustrates the versatility of timber waste products. This also applies to bamboo, besides that bamboo grows much quicker and drives well in degraded soils.
Bio-based materials help our planet thrive
A few months ago my former thesis -supervisor introduced me to the concept “ThriveAbility”. ThriveAbility reframes sustainability by focusing on the positive benefits of collectively living within our means ( operating within the carrying capacities of capitals). ThriveAbility does this by weaving two additional dimensions into the sustainability equation that remedy the Social and Governance weak spots, while catalysing context-based environmental performance. It basically looks at adding value to our environment instead of exploiting it (Baue, 2016).
With bio-based products we can do so. An example is bio-char that can be produced as waste product and be fet back into farms. Biochar can be used as soil enhancer as it holds carbon, boosts food security, and increases soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer (InternationalBiocharInitative, 2019)
Mitigating scope 3 emissions works well on the local level
Since our supply chains are connected across the globe, it is more difficult to achieve carbon neutrality during transportation. But if we would overall , in each region and city of the supply chain focus more on bio-based materials [and renewables], we could feed more energy into our transportation system and therefore ensure that we are meeting our global target under Paris.
My ideal supply-chain would be an integrated bio-based supply chain, which integrates circularity on each stage of it. Since there are growth-limits for bio-based materials, I would emphasize circular business models for end consumers and producers; 1. To capture product value and 2. To have sufficient time for circular systems to regenerate within out planetary boundaries.
Have you become intersted to calculate your Scope3 emissions? I found an excellent technical guideline by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which provides standards, guidance, tools and training for business and government to measure and manage climate-warming emissions. You can access it here.
For questions and comments, feel free to contact mebelow.
Brunklaus B., Riise E. (2018) Bio-based Materials Within the Circular Economy: Opportunities and Challenges. In: Benetto E., Gericke K., Guiton M. (eds) Designing Sustainable Technologies, Products and Policies. Springer, Cham
A few weeks ago I watched a Netflix documentary on healthy diets, which highlighted the versatile and healthy diets of hunter gathrers. Hunter-gatherer culture was the way of life for early humans until around 11 to 12,000 years ago. The lifestyle of hunter-gatherers was based on hunting animals and foraging for food.
What I liked most about the documentary was to see a balancing interaction between humans and their ecosystem. Whatever they used to hunt, to wear and to cook was bio-based and once an item fullfilled its purpose such as food, a used spear or old clothes, they could be thrown away and turned one with nature again. Life focused on necessities, instead of likeabilities; whatever had been thrown away, needed to be thrown away.
Our way of interacting with the “real word” drastically changed and we started to become adjusted to as well as to desire materials that are non-organic. These are materials that at the end of their life-cycle accumulate in the environment somewhere, rather then becoming part of it. These are also materials that can be produced very quick!
Some of these materials include synthetically produced textiles, or the processing and use of sand and metals for construction. Others include plastic to wrap goods, or fossil fuels to supply us with heat. Hunter gatherers instead would have hunted for food and would have used all parts of their pray such as the skin for leather. They would have collected wood from the sourroundings to serve as a source of heat and fire wood. Whatever waste they had created in their different tribes, turned one with nature again.
Nowadays we are driving on quick consumption, the rush it evokes in us, the happiness it brings and the quick accessibilty for it. One click on Amazon and we can buy the new shirt of our favorite Instagram feet or those that Tom and Jaz are wearing. Another click and we can buy new shoes and a few years later, we finally can buy that interior decor we always wanted. The industry knows that and they are more then dedicated to supply new products and innovations on a rapid basis.
The industry also knows that our resources are running short, environmenal regulations are turning stronger and therefore increasing research to develop and re-apply bio-based materials. Suddenly the way of living with our environment such as of the hunter-gatherers appeals.
!Biobased materials do not equal sustainability
As an individual, I believe that you can think of various bio materials i.e. grass to produce paper or sheep woll for textile. But my favorite industrial bio-based “sustainable” material is bamboo, because it matures within 3-5 years and it can be processed into almost everything. It is also my favorite ecological resource, because it stores water year round, regenerates degraded lands and can serve as an alternative to tropical timber.
While I truly support bamboo as an alternative to other materials, I also acknowledge that its growth rate of 3-5 years is limited. Let’s say if we had 16.000 hectars of bamboo and needed all that bamboo to supply sufficient fibre in one year, then it is likely not as “renewable at the end”. I also acknowledge that certain processing methods such as the chemical once for fibre production, make it less ecological and biodegradable. This is the opposite for mechanically produced fibres, but the processing is lenghty and labour intensive. This currently makes it less desirable by the industry.
To continue promoting or developing ecological, fair or lets say “slow” materials within the current consumption model, the only way to go forward is the Circular Economy. I would say that the Circular Economy aligns well with the principles of the hunter gatherers, as waste turns into value again.
Why is that important?
Because if we want to continue promoting sustainable materials (let’s say ecological, not causing deforestation, no pollutions entering the environment), then we have to acknowledge that there are limits to growth for “bio-based materials.” Yet, to maintain that current economic model, we simply capture the value of products at the end of their lifecycle. In doing so , businesses keep the value in the company and consumers can maintain similiar consumption models.
We can achieve this by promoting business models for the circular economy that capture the value, of products and materials at the end, but also throughout the production of a product.
Would you like to know more about business models for the circular (bio-based) economy and receive help with identifying integrated models that are most suitable for your business?
To begin with, bamboo truly is a fast growing resource, which has turned it into a favorable renewable resource. However, being renewable does not imply that it is sustainable in the processed stage such as with (some) bamboo textile. Since there have been debates about bamboo being a sustainable opportunity for textiles, I decided to look into the general textile production process and evaluate, whether bamboo textile truly is as sustainable or how it would need to be to be sustainable. To start, I decided to look into the different types of fibre groups used in the textile industry.
There are three basic types of fibre groups:
• Natural fibres
• Regenerated fibres
• Synthetic fibres
“Regenerated and synthetic fibres are collectively known as man-made or manufactured fibres. Natural fibres are, as the name suggests, those which occur in nature, such as wool from sheep or cotton from cotton plants (Kozlowski, 2012a, 2012b). Regenerated fibres are made from natural polymers that are not useable in their original form but can be regenerated (i.e. reformed) to create useful fibres (Woodings, 2001). One of first regenerated fibres was rayon, also referred to as viscose or viscose rayon, regenerated from wood pulp. In contrast, synthetic fibres are made by polymerising smaller molecules into larger ones in an industrial process (McIntyre, 2004), “(Sinclair, R, 2015).
In what category does bamboo textile fall into?
Bamboo in itself is a natural material, it is famous and loved for its quick growth and versatile purposes. Bamboo is rich in cellulose, which forms the plant fibres. You can see them in the images below (the dark dotted parts in the culm crosscut). The lighter part is the lignin, the organic substance that is binding the plant fibres.
While bamboo fibres are indeed natural, the process of producing textile from bamboo turns into a man-made production process. I was able to find two bamboo textile production processes; The mechanical and chemical process.
The mechanical process
In the mechanical process, known as “thermomechanical fibre processing“, fibers are being extracted by firstly splitting the culms or by crushing them. These parts are then being cooked with alkaline phosphatase (a salt, but also natural acting enzyme) to extract the fibres (this step is also known as degumming). Once degummed, the fibres are being washed, dried and spinned for the production of textile.
Because this process involves the use of enzymes for the extraction of the fibers, it is one of the most environmentally friendly methods.
On the left image below you can see the bamboo’s natural very thin fibers, that are difficult to extract by hand. Because they keep their natural “rough” characteristics in the mechanical process, they are less favored by consumers. On the right image you can see two types of fibers. Can you guess, which one is the natural man-made fibre bundle?
The chemical process
The chemical process (regenerated fiber processing) differs largely to the mechanical one. It is used moslty for industrial purposes. It is the process by, which the smooth and soft form of bamboo textile, known as bamboo viscose, is produced (see white bamboo bulk on the image above). In this process all noncellulose constituents of the culm are removed. I would describe that as any natural surface material that “protects or covers” the fiber (viscose). “Raw cottons, for instance, contain a number of noncellulosic materials that are generally considered to be surface related and may therefore affect fiber quality , ” (Brushwood, 2003).
For the chemical process, a pulping process is used in which the cellulose fibres is seperated from bamboo pulps through chemical applications (see image above). First of all, bamboo fibres are cooked to remove any polymers (kind of like the natural glues) and organic acids. This process helps to losen the fibre structure and to have chemicals penetrate into the fibers more easily. During that process chemicals are added. ” Most common are the Kraft and sulfite pulping processes. Alternatively, alkaline (sodium/anthraquinone) or organosolv (ethanol, or acetic or formic acid) are used and followed by multiple bleaching sequences, ” (Van Dam, 2018). Once the process is completed, bamboo fibres can be filtered and spinned.
The “biofriendly” chemical process
I happened to come across one more “biofriendly” processing method in which Lyocell is produced from bamboo. Lyocell is “a cellulose fiber that is precipitated from an organic solution in which no substitution of the hydroxyl groups takes place and no chemical intermediates are formed, ” (Chen, J., 2015).
During the process of lyocell production (smooth and soft fiber), only one organic compound is used to dessolve the fibers known as N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO). The production process then seems to be simliar to the one that produces viscose, with the only difference that waste such as waste water seems to remain in the production system (closed loop production) and therefore does not result into environmental contamination.
Comming back to the initial question, I would argue that bamboo viscose, used most in the industry, is not sustainable, or in other terms ecologically produced. Many chemicals are being used for the production and it may be unclear, where these and particular waste waters are released to. In addition, these chemicals can also hugely negatively impact the health of manufacturers. Lyocell production, which appears to be less used by the industry, but receives a growing recognition, seems to be promoising in terms of fiber quality, and its closed-loop production process. The traditional, mechanical process, seems to be the most ecological, but less appealing in terms of product quality as the properties of the fibers remain rather natural at this moment. It seems that it is possible to create high quality fibres with the mechanical process, but I could not find sufficient Information.
While I have mixed feelings about the different production processes, I still rate bamboo high for textile, due to its fast growth. In comparison to other viscose that is deprived from wood, be it certified or not, I would argue that bamboo fiber provides a sustainable resource to others such as conventional timber or eucalyptus, which is known for its high rates of water consumption.
Another example is cotton. Gobally cotton covers just 2.4% of the worlds’ cultivated land, but uses less then 6% of the worlds’ pesticides (and 16% of isecticides), more than any other single major crop. On the other hand, bamboo can grow with minimum to no fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Bamboo is a pioneer plant that can grow in margenalized and degraded land, where other crops couldn’t.
For people concerned about deforestation, but not “ecological production”, I would vow for bamboo textile. However, if we were to clear land for the establishment of bamboo plantations I would out-vow bamboo textile!
How does the future for bamboo textile look like?
First of all, I would argue that we should move away from fast-fashion clothing and choose clothing that is made to last. If we buy textile made from wood viscose and throw it away after a single season, we are neglecting the fact that wood takes more then one season to grow. Bamboo on the other hand, which takes around three years to mature, provides a more sustainable opportunity. However, as with bamboo, I wish that bamboo fibers are produced while meeting sustainability criterias; sustainable sourced bamboo (minimal pesticide and water control during cultivation) and bamboo sourced from sustainable managed forests, bamboo produced in environmentally/people friendly conditions.
The next post will be about how the different bamboo fiber processing methods effect the quality of bamboos’ unique features “bacteria resistancy, water absorbtion etc”. Stay tuned 🙂
Bajpai, P. (2018). Biermann’s Handbook of Pulp and Paper: Volume 2: Paper and Board Making. Elsevier.
Chen, J. (2015). Synthetic textile fibers: regenerated cellulose fibers. In Textiles and Fashion (pp. 79-95). Woodhead Publishing.
Brushwood, D. E. (2003). Noncellulosic constituents on raw cotton and their relationship to fiber physical properties. Textile research journal, 73(10), 912-916.
Nayak, L., & Mishra, S. P. (2016). Prospect of bamboo as a renewable textile fiber, historical overview, labeling, controversies and regulation. Fashion and Textiles, 3(1), 2.
van Dam, J. E., Elbersen, H. W., & Montaño, C. M. D. (2018). 1Wageningen Food and Biobased Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands. Perennial Grasses for Bioenergy and Bioproducts: Production, Uses, Sustainability and Markets for Giant Reed, Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Reed Canary Grass and Bamboo, 175.
Sinclair, R. (2015). Understanding Textile Fibres and Their Properties: What is a Textile Fibre?. In Textiles and fashion (pp. 3-27). Woodhead Publishing.
Yes, I do absolutely love bamboo, but there is nothing more beautiful than the interaction of entire ecosystems, ranging from a mix of plant and animal species.
I think that trees are incredible beautiful and they are incredible versatile, but name me one tree that you can use as quickly and easily as bamboo.
First of all, let me just simply begin with…wow… . Tropical bamboo is just incredible beautiful. It is huge, thick, strong with incredible leaf fall. Its leafs quickly cover forest ground, which decompose rapidly and become nutrient to other fauna and flora species (the little decomposers, hardly visible to the human eye).
Now comes my first question from the forest. Why are we transforming raw materials (lets say steel), by using tonnes of energy and resources to create a round artificial structure that fullfills the same purpose as a bamboo pole (see bank left picture). Why are we cutting and slicing trees that take likely many more years to regrow instead of using bamboo that also fullfills the same purpose (see right image). Of course, either way bamboo for longevility purposes needs treatment, but that is another story.
Bascially on these pictures here above, all you have to do is to walk in the forest with a a saw or machete, cut a bamboo pole, cut it a little more short, bind it together and here we go; a swing, buildings, stairs,… .
Here you can see a little bit better how the poles are sticked together. Okay, for the bridge you have to slice the bamboo culms into smaller stripes and parts. But even then, can you recognize how bendable bamboo is? It can even be wrapped around a finger for multiple times without breaking.
Bamboo and bendability… I think it can be difficult to imagine what it actually means, when we are used to pictures that illustrate the bamboo pole by itself. Isn’t it beautiful though? I have to commit that until this weekend I was mostly writing and reading about its bendability potential.. So I decided to sit in a river and understand it myself. I hope it will help you too 🙂
And then.. it is also fiberous. Fiberous.. Fiber.. What is actually fiber ? It is also difficult to imagine because we usually buy finished products such as textile.
Here you can see the fibers. These are those very thin “lines” that can be processed and used for textile. The process is a little bit complicated and I do not want to touch upon it. If you are interested, please read here.
Besides that, I think bamboo is simply incredible. You can use it to build houses, particular earth quake resistant once, I am yet to promote them more in regions like those in the Ring of Fire – prone to earth quakes. You can simply work with bamboos hollow structure (see picture in the rice field) but also use it to support building structures (picture in the middle).
Most of all, I think it is also incredible fun to play around with it, look at it, use it and understand how we can promote it more for its versatile purposes. Bamboo is not just a grass, to me it is a power plant; you take it from nature, cut it, treat it and use it. In an age in which time is scare! bamboo is a trully sustainable solution.