We sat down with the founder of Pure Waste to talk about the company's origin story, using only materials that would otherwise go to waste and the future of textile recycling.
Hannes Bengs dials into the Zoom call from Pure Waste's office, where the team has just finished a photo shoot for new colors about to hit their store for the summer. Made from recycled materials, of course. Founded in 2013, Pure Waste is a pioneer in textile recycling. More precisely, mechanical recycling of pre-consumer cotton waste from the textile industry into yarns, fabrics, and clothes. But more on that later.
"Cotton is one of the most used textile fibers, and its farming has devastating environmental impacts. Yet approximately 15% of the cotton the textile industry uses every year goes to waste. It's vastly under recycled, and we want to save as much of this great raw material as possible", says the founder of a company whose main line of business is to manufacture fabrics and clothing for other companies. New Standard among them.
Clothes and textiles have been recycled for decades. Still, when Bengs and his co-founders started, completely recycled fabrics were never produced. In fact, they were told that it was not possible. But the idealism and commitment paid off, paving the way for the transformation finally commencing in the textile and clothing industry.
"When we got started, we needed to be cautious about how we talked about recycled materials; back then, the attitude climate was different, and something being recycled had negative connotations. We've had to lead the way, and it has been great to witness the shift in attitudes of consumers and industry alike. However, there's still tons of work to be done."
To truly appreciate the Finnish company's groundbreaking work and understand both the current solutions and future possibilities in textile recycling, I asked Bengs to begin by taking us back to where it all started.
Solving one's own problem
The founding story of Pure Waste dates back to 2006 when a group of then twenty-somethings started to make hats from surplus fabrics in a downtown Helsinki coal cellar. In a few years, Costo hats, distinguishable from their pom-poms, would become phenomena, first taking over the streets of the Finnish capital and then the world.
"We actually founded the company before we knew what to do with it. We just wanted to do our thing," Bengs reminisces about the beginning of their journey that might sound familiar to many budding entrepreneurs.
"I was fresh out of school working at an interior design store, where I eventually realized that fabric swatches of sofas were thrown away after each season. My brother Anders had made hats as part of his clothing design studies, and it turned out that one piece of a swatch was enough to make one hat. So, we thought: 'Let's start here; it's ecological."
In 2010, when Costo really took off, the company faced the challenge of keeping up with the limited supply of surplus materials. They had to find an alternative.
"On a sourcing trip to China, we discovered a factory recycling pre-consumer waste from clothing production. That got us thinking of using completely recycled textiles. To our surprise, the closest thing we could find was fabrics using 10 to 15% recycled fibers," Bengs recaps of the first steps of the Pure Waste story.
"We realized we can't be the only ones wanting completely recycled fabrics and got excited about the opportunity to start supplying them ourselves."
The development and sourcing process took them from China to India, where the infrastructure for recycling textiles was already in place and used for repurposing waste from the local industry. The technology just hadn't been used to create 100% recycled fabrics before.
"We were told that what we wanted to create couldn't be done, and no one wanted to produce anything for us as they were afraid that their machines would break. We didn't give up and eventually were able to create a few working test batches that proved that it was indeed possible to realize our vision."
As with many companies, the team got started by solving their own problem; however, this problem was one the whole industry and world shared. After three intensive years of product development, Pure Waste Textiles was incorporated in 2013.
"Our plan was all along to become 'the GoreTex of recycled fabrics', but we soon realized that we had to show what's possible ourselves first. So, we created a consumer brand to create awareness for our fabrics, focusing on communicating how much water our manufacturing process saves compared to working with virgin cotton. That's what got the ball rolling."
The first batch of Pure Waste t-shirts was sold the same year, and the company started to build its factory in Tiruppur already the year after. Fast forward to 2020, the company has already expanded its SEDEX and BSCI certificated factory, which now employs 60 persons.
On finding value from the waste
When talking about their manufacturing process, the Bengs' level of detail and passion quickly shows that Pure Waste has had to build everything from the ground up themselves.
"First cotton cuttings are collected from local CMT factories in India. The material is then sorted by color and quality. This way, we don't have to use any dyes as the waste lends its color for the end product," the founder explains and mentions that the company doesn't use any harmful chemicals in their processes.
Next, the sorted cotton waste is mechanically opened to fibers and blended with recycled polyester from recycled PET bottles. Bengs says that the company has tested different ratios of the two fibers throughout the years before settling on a mix of 60% recycled cotton and 40% recycled polyester. But why does Pure Waste contain polyester in the first place?
"Recycled cotton fibers are not long enough to be turned into high-quality end products. By blending them with recycled polyester, we can spin the fibers into stronger yarns, knit or weave that into durable fabrics and ultimately finish clothes that last; sustainability and quality go hand-in-hand."
When talking about the end products, we get to the reason why so many companies have turned to Pure Waste for their material.
"Our process uses 99.9% less water and has a 50% smaller carbon footprint than making equivalent clothes from virgin materials. In fact, we were one of the first companies in our industry to make these figures public for all our products."
In 2019, the company achieved another significant milestone in its manufacturing process.
"A couple of years back, we released a collection of clothes that used a version of our fabric made from 20% post-consumer textiles instead of industry's waste. We think the end-of-life textiles from both consumers and companies should be treated as a material, not as waste – and we have more plans for that", Bengs turns the conversation towards the company's future.
The future is closed loop
During our conversation, it has become clear that the team at Pure Waste doesn't rest on its laurels. The company has already proved that prevailing industry practices can be changed, and the team is dedicated to leading by example also in the future.
"For small companies like us, R&D opportunities are limited, but we believe there's strength in cooperation. In addition to our in-house work, we have participated in various industry projects that have enabled us to unlock important steps in our product development."
The most recent project saw the light of the day just recently. Rester, a recycling company, founded by Pure Waste and a few other textile industry players, opened an industrial-scale recycling facility for end-of-life textiles in Finland in early 2022. The facility is the first of its kind in Northern Europe.
"Rester accepts companies' end-of-life textiles as well as manufacturing side streams and reopens them mechanically into fibers. The waste management company operating under the same roof refines domestic end-of-life textiles into recycled fibers. This cooperation allows the efficient use of both," Bengs explains.
What does this mean for Pure Waste, which has worked with textile industry waste in India for more than a decade?
"Material surplus, waste, and post-use textiles should be processed where they are generated. As India is one of the world's largest textiles manufacturers, converting the textile industry to cutting waste into new materials and textiles there makes sense both environmentally and financially. As we've already proven that using end-of-life textiles from both consumers and companies as a raw material is possible, we want to do it at a commercial scale here in Finland."
The first stage of the company's vision of local refinement is now ready. Thanks to their stake in Rester, Pure Waste can now recycle all their clothing in Finland, and the next step towards closed-loop is to build a spinning mill in their home country.
In recent years, tiny Finland has spun up new material innovations outside of its weight class – Spinnova, Innocent and Infinite Fiber, to name a few – and cooperation among local companies can also enable other exciting future opportunities for Pure Waste and its clients.
"We are obviously not against recycled polyester, but we have been looking for an alternative for years. Nothing came close before the innovations in chemically recycled fibers. We've already done successful tests with these new fibers and eagerly wait for their commercialization to ramp up", Bengs hints about the company's plans.
The dedication to reshaping the industry in the future radiates from the founder, who plans to remain a pioneer in their field for the years to come.
"Achieving our goals will take time, but we have the ideas and stamina to do it. However, no one can change the world alone. That's why we want to work with upstarts like New Standard that share the same value base and goal", he says.
When asked how anyone can wear the change the world needs to see, Bengs has a clear answer.
"Find your personal style. It's a journey, and we all make mistakes along the way, but learning what you enjoy wearing allows you to buy less but better clothes. It also helps to avoid unnecessary orders and returns from online stores," he concludes.