Forty-five minutes outside of Coimbatore, India, a Finnish company is producing a new kind of factory which will turn trash into a fashion business.
Jukka Pesola and Anders Bengs run Pure Waste Textiles. Their business model is simple: take leftover fabric and turn it into a new, usable piece of clothing. However, the clothes don’t scream recycled. The tees, sweaters, and pants they produce out of excess or waste textiles are fashionable and well cut staples.
This year, they’re opening a new unit in Tamil Nadu. The facility houses a production unit where fabrics are opened, carded, spun again and woven into new knits. By the end of the year, the palm-lined land will include their flagship recycling unit, already operational CMT manufacturing unit, and facilities for staff. Once fully operational, the plant will fill 200 jobs—employment that Bengs says could be beneficial to a poor local population. The unit will be fueled by renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.
Tamil Nadu is the heart of India’s textile manufacturing—an industry valued at $2.2billion. The trouble is that all this growth and wealth has come at a price; traditional manufacturing practices which include using chemical dyes and water intensive crops, such as cotton, have impacted the local environment negatively. The Noyyal River which runs through much of Tamil Nadu has gone from being a refuge for villagers living on its banks, to a source of toxicity, and even cancer.
Recycling, Bengs says, is the answer. “We cannot keep growing more cotton, and producing more new clothes. To feed a growing population’s appetite for consumption, we have to start recycling, or as we like to call it, purecycling.”
Cotton, the primary fabric used in t-shirts, is a water-intensive crop and can be destructive for the soil. Given that it’s not a food crop, it also takes away precious resources and arable land, which could be used to feed populations. By some estimates, current cotton farming could fill up land the size of modern-day Turkey.
Bengs, along with Pesola and three other partners, started by recycling scrap fabrics into hats. In 2006, Bengs and two of his three partners, developed a line called Costo, which turned Bengs into a full-time hatmaker. “I was making about 300 to 400 hats a day. It was just me because I couldn’t afford anyone else.”
Yet, the brand grew in Helsinki and Bengs became even more entrenched in sustainable fashion. Pesola, a textile industry expert with over 15 years of experience, negotiating contracts with Indian and Chinese suppliers, began crafting a new business with Bengs. In 2013, Pure Waste Textiles emerged.
Rather than turning to sustainable fabrics, the duo looked to textile factories producing massive volumes. About 10 to 15 percent of fabrics go in the trash in factories, Pesola explains. That extra fabric, however, is enough to produce more clothing. The trick is to make it usable again.
The new unit in Tamil Nadu lets them break down knitted fabric to fibers once again. Once the material is carded, it’s spun, and turned into a new material. Given that material was already dyed, Bengs and Pesola argue that it eliminates other wasteful step in manufacturing clothes: dying. Growing cotton and then dying it, just for one shirt, can eat up as much as 2700 liters of water, Bengs says; much of that water is then contaminated. While some dying houses are responsible, using GOTS certified dyes (or non-toxic dyes), not all are. And consequently, that wastewater mixes with local water sources, such as the Tirupur River.
Pesola says that 95 percent of textile fibers can be recycled. “Not only can it be recycled,” he explains “but it’s actually cheaper, if we work in volume, because we don’t have to go through the dying process.”
By repurposing material and sewing it in proximity, the duo are hoping to make a streamlined manufacturing process that is low on its carbon footprint, cost-effective, and easier to manage. Their Indian business partner runs the sewing unit where the garments can be sewed and finished.
Already, Pure Waste Textiles has developed an annual turnover of 1 million euros. “The first two years has been more about R&D and setting up the production unit,” Bengs clarifies. But now with the plant scheduled to be complete by 2017, the duo are looking at pushing sales. With a team of 10 in Helsinki, 5 in Mumbai, and 200 in Tamil Nadu, recycling is no longer just a passion for Bengs.
The aim with the new unit in India is to produce mass quantities of fabric, made from recycled materials. Companies often ask Pure Waste Textile to produce branded or custom designed apparel using these base fabrics. To date, Pure Waste Textiles has already produced branded designs on their recycled materials for clients such as Slush, one of the largest technology and entrepreneurship conferences in Europe, which takes place every year in Helsinki.