Elin is the former Sustainability Director of Filippa K, a Swedish fashion label founded on the values of style, simplicity and quality. She has since moved on to launch a strategic advisory, Elco, focused on the principles of sustainability and circularity. In her spare time, Elin is on the Boards of Futerra, Mistra Future Fashion and 10YFP UNEP.
Have your personal values shaped your work?
Yes, indeed. I have a hard time separating my private values and the business side – which in my belief, is a good thing. I have always been a values-driven person; it is important for me to have a purpose in life and to follow my heart. We are living in an era of change in which we are facing challenges like scarcity of resources, and overdrawing of planetary boundaries, alongside exciting opportunities thanks to digitalisation, innovation, new technologies and new customer behaviours.
We need to rethink, redesign and rebuild many of our processes and structures, and it’s here that we can learn from nature. Nature has developed a perfectly designed circular model of different ecosystems existing in balance with each other, and has been fine tuning it for at least 3.8 billion years. That is where I find inspiration; I find it very exciting to be part of this transformation.
My personal drive is to create change for the better, to find solutions that lead to business growth whilst also operating within planetary boundaries. I find the biggest satisfaction comes from working together with competent, creative and brave people who are experts within their field. I love collaboratively finding new ways to expand the business.
Walk us through your career in this field; how did you end up at Filippa K and how has your experience working as the brand’s Sustainability Director influenced your view of the current fashion system?
It started as a serendipitous encounter at a Christmas party 24 years ago, where I was offered to come work for Filippa K, which, at that point, was a startup. My plan was originally to work at Filippa K for a year or two, then continue with my university studies. It did not go as planned – I ended up staying in the company for almost 23 years, and I have never regretted that decision.
My 23 years at Filippa K has been an exciting and winding journey that spanned many areas of the company, from Sales Coordinator to Project Manager, IT Manager, Sales Support, Logistics Manager to Supply Chain Director, and finally Sustainability Director – a role I held for almost eight years. That was where I finally found my true mission, my contribution to this world. I’m driven by a passion for finding sustainable solutions for business and society, and for creating change in collaboration with people across our industry’s entire ecosystem.
I was part of the Filippa K management team for almost ten years, developing and implementing overall strategies for the company. I actually ended up studying sustainable transitions (the relationship between economic, political and environmental crises) at Jönköping University in Sweden alongside my work.
Outside of my work at Filippa K, I’ve been a board member of Mistra Future Fashion for four years, part of the Sweden Textile Water Initiative steering committee, and an advisory board member for the UN-founded Sustainable Lifestyles and Education (SLE), which is one of six programs within the larger 10-year Sustainable Consumption and Production program framework.
Given the chance to work within sustainability has broadened my understanding of our fashion industry and the impact it has – both the good and the bad, from the most extraordinary and beautiful objects to the harm they often cause the planet. I have learned many things about the whole lifecycle of the products we create. I am not a pessimist, however; quite the opposite, in fact. I am a firm believer in the beauty of fashion, but I cannot overstate the importance of a change in the industry—the whole industry.
Pushing the boundaries of sustainable fashion is imperative, as is implementing those lessons and insights back into the business. It has not always been an easy path—sometimes it feels like you are trying to push a mountain, and you almost lose hope. But then all of a sudden, you’re able to take a big leap forward. I like to compare it to gardening. You plant a seed, then you wait for it to grow. During that time, you have to water and nurture it, until one day, it breaks through the soil and becomes the most beautiful flower.
“The common separation into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fibres, based on generic classifications of fibre types, is too simplified—a tee shirt made from organic cotton or recycled material does not automatically become a more sustainable tee shirt.”
Filippa K is a leading example of a brand embedding best practice into its DNA – it considers fibres, sourcing, garment lifecycle, end-of-use and the importance of customer care. Has it always had this holistic approach to impact, or has the brand evolved over the years as it has learned more about environmental issues? What can other brands learn from this journey?
It’s been a journey, from the very start. As a brand, Filippa K has actually always considered sustainability and created clothes that last for a long time, but we didn’t always talk about it in those terms. Sustainability is a concept that has arisen in the last few years, and which is still evolving. When times are changing, you soon realise you need to stay up to date in order to make sure everyone is aware.
What makes some organisations more adaptable to change? I have given this a lot of thought, and would like to highlight these key factors:
Firstly, that knowledge creates engagement. Sustainability can be an overwhelming subject and, at times, almost frightening. It’s filled with jargon, many areas of concern, and it can be difficult to know where to begin in order to enact change. In order to create change, in any part of an ecosystem, raising awareness is crucial. I believe this quote from Jean Paul Sartre describes it very well: ‘Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction. We can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible.’
Fully integrated vision and clear direction is also vital when considering a company’s direction, and focus. Early on, we decided not to have a separate sustainability department, and to instead make sure that sustainability would be an integral part of everyone’s work and processes. By doing so, sustainability became a natural part of the core business and our decision-making.
In order to get everyone on board and to contribute to a shared vision, you need a clear and simple strategy that everyone can relate to. I like to compare strategy with a Christmas tree. Before you have your strategy, it’s like you have all these beautiful Christmas ornaments, but nowhere to hang them and, as a result, you don’t use them. Once you have the Christmas tree in place, however, everyone can start decorating the tree.
You must be bold enough to try new things. Breaking new ground can be tough, and you need to have some guts to challenge yourself and dare to try it. I believe that the Filippa K team shows a lot of guts—we are constantly challenging ourselves and testing new ideas and solutions. It also takes a lot of patience and conviction to make change happen, or at least to get the majority on board. The road can be bumpy and winding sometimes, but that is part of the transformation phase. We found that it is easier to trial new ideas and solutions in smaller scale, to separate projects from the beginning. This minimises the risk. Having said that, it is important that the ideas are scalable, because we enter these trials with the intention of growth. The idea is to develop a concept so that it becomes a contributing part of our business, whether it’s relating to product development or new services to our customers.
It’s important to be humble enough to adjust along the way. When developing completely new ideas and changes, it’s difficult to know how it will work in reality; how customers will perceive it, how well will it integrate with the rest of the business, potential unforeseen logistic challenges we did not foresee and the like. That is why you need to allow yourself to learn as you go along and make adjustments along the way. One of the most important objectives of our innovations is to allow the lessons and insights acquired to spread throughout the business, and to create a change bigger than that one project.
I met a Swedish Buddhist monk once who told me a story about a little girl. The girl walked all alone on a beach. There had been a dreadful storm the night before and thousands of starfish had been washed up on the beach. The little girl picks them up one by one to throw them back in the sea when an old man walks by. He says to her, “Stop that, there’s no use, you cannot save them all.” The little girl bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea and says, “Ask that one what he thinks”. I like that story a lot, because it speaks to the importance of the small actions and how they can spread and create a greater change in the end.
The team at Filippa K and I wanted to explore what fashion would look like if it operated within planet capacity. Back in 2014, we developed a circular fashion framework that would act as a business transformation guidebook. Our primary ambition was to shift our business to a circular model in which no waste is created, to use our resources in the best way possible throughout the entire garment lifecycle. This meant we had to make sure the production of our clothes was completely sustainable, the whole supply chain was transparent, and that we could offer sustainable ways of consuming fashion. We also had to ensure we collected our garments at the end of the cycle so that we could recycle them into new textile fibres. It was an elaborate mission that we approached with extensive research and analysis. We used all the learnings we gathered through our daily work, and started a deeper journey with our suppliers. There’s still a long way to go, but they, and we, will get there.
On a planet with finite resources, there is obviously a real need to shift away from a take, make, dispose model and towards circularity. In what ways has Filippa K embraced this as an opportunity to innovate? Is this what prompted the launch of Front Runners?
This is where our circular fashion strategy has played an important role, alongside a focus on the four Rs: reduce, repair, reuse, recycle.
Reduce is about the clothes that we create—how can we make them as sustainable as possible, fully recyclable and creating no waste. And further to that, how can we inspire customers to build a more sustainable wardrobe and more mindful consumption. To really challenge ourselves and to understand what it takes to create products that are part of a circular business model, and that can live up to our commitments for 2030, we have our Front Runners to show us the way.
Every second year or so we develop a few products to become Front Runners. Front Runners are products that are made as sustainably as possible throughout their lifecycle. Their purpose is not to have created a separate collection, but rather to be a learning process, so that we can take those learnings and implement them in our ordinary collections. They allow us to continue working towards our 2030 commitment—when all our clothes should be ‘Front Runners’.
Repair is about giving our clothes the long life they were meant to have, by helping our customers care for their clothes. We give our customers inspiration and guidance on how to care for their clothes, and we mend broken clothes. We sell care products in our stores, and use them to start a dialogue with customers on how to care for their clothes.
I believe we often tire of our clothes before they wear out, so try to ensure all clothes get a second or a third life. That is what reuse refers to. In 2015, we launched a take-back system in our stores. Customers can return Filippa K pieces they no longer user and receive a voucher for their next purchase, no matter if they are broken or worn out. A great deal of the clothing we get back is in such good condition that we’re able to sell them again in our Filippa K second-hand store in Stockholm. It’s worth noting that it’s been profitable since day one, and has really proven its business potential.
The next question is: do we really need to own all of our clothes? I don’t think so. A couple of years ago a survey showed that 70% of Swedish people only use 50% or less of their wardrobe, and that 30% of them were frustrated by their wardrobe. We obviously own too much stuff. And when we look at the clothing that isn’t being used, it is often items that you would only wear on special occasions. With this in mind, we started a rental program in 2015 for our clothes in selected stores.
Lastly, recycling is about making sure worn out clothes are returned or acquired at the end of their life so they can be turned into new textile fibres. Today, Filippa K can only guarantee full recycling of their Front Runner products. They do currently have an initiative in place though, that collects cutting waste from wool production and sends it to manufacturers in Italy that are able to make new fabric out of it again. They’re also beginning a similar program for jersey materials.
Considering all fibres have some form of impact on our environment, and that no utopian fibre exists, which do you believe to be the least harmful and why? Have recycled fibres proven to be just as durable and high quality as virgin?
The latest research has shown that the biggest impact lies in the production of fabric, rather than what fibre you use. The common separation into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fibres, based on generic classifications of fibre types, is too simplified—a tee-shirt made from organic cotton or recycled material does not automatically become a more sustainable tee-shirt. That said, fibre choice is still important. I believe that in the future we will see a mix of different sustainable choices—we will use recycled fibres, regenerated fibres made of waste from other industries (orange peels, pine apples, grapes, fish), and new innovative fabrics like lab-grown leather, synthetic spider silk and fibre made from algaes. It’s likely we will even have climate-positive fibres available to us in the future, made from harvested greenhouse gases.
A challenge we still face today is that recycled material is often of a lower quality, but I expect this will be solved in the future—we’re already seeing some very high quality recycled options.
“We need to rethink, redesign and rebuild many of our processes and structures, and it’s here that we can learn from nature. Nature has developed a perfectly designed circular model of different ecosystems existing in balance with each other, and has been fine tuning it for at least 3.8 billion years. “
Similar to other industries, fashion is starting to explore different business models that offer access rather than ownership. Filippa K Lease is a great example of this. Has this been received well by customers and do you believe the rental market will expand in the future?
We received a lot of attention when we launched our rental program, and it was really appreciated by our customers. But in reality, even as numbers are increasing each year, the rate of rentals is still low. I do believe in the rental or subscription model, but it takes time to change behaviours and you need to fine tune the offering until it becomes so attractive that customers simply have to try it. While we did not do that enough at Filippa K, more and more startups are appearing in Sweden and Europe so I believe we will have many different options in the near future—and that they will be successful.
For many years, customer focus has been on seeking cheap prices regardless of garment quality. What are your thoughts on ‘cost per wear’ and the importance of educating customers on this longer term price calculation?
This is one of the core challenges we face today: customers are chasing low prices and clothes are already too cheap, especially if we want to sell garments that don’t harm the environment, and if we want to provide all workers with fair wages and working conditions. Endeavouring to highlight the importance of ‘cost per wear’ could be a good way of showing customers that it can be worthwhile to spend a little extra money on good quality items that last longer.
The latest research tells us we can lower the climate impact of a garment by 49% if you’re able to double its life length, based on the ways we measure clothing production today. But what if we optimise a product, its production processes, and business models depending on its expected life length? Will we be able to create short life garments that are also sustainable in the future?
Everything in nature has a different speed and lifecycle, each of which is optimised for resource efficiency, creating no waste. This is where we can learn from nature.
FIlippa K’s philosophy has always been to make clothes that last for a long time, so for us it has always been a matter of creating long-lasting lifecycles.
Approaching Filippa K’s last Front Runner project, we wanted to explore whether it is possible to create both slow and fast fashion while still being sustainable. We undertook the project alongside the University of the Arts London, and a research platform called Mistra Future. Together, we were to develop fully circular garments and take a hard look at the different ‘speeds’ of fashion.
We all know slow fashion is good. By prolonging a garment’s life by nine months, you are able to decrease its environmental impact by 20 to 30%. But what about fast fashion? In nature, we do not define different speeds as good or bad. A butterfly that only lives for a few days is as important as an elephant that lives for 70 years. Both contribute to the ecosystem. And we would not want to be without the cherry blossoms, even though they only last for a week. So, we challenged ourselves to consider these opposing speeds of fashion, not only developing a really slow garment, but also to exploring the possibility of designing and producing clothing that only lasts for a short time. The researchers started out by asking how we design for durability and long life and that was the easy part. Our core philosophy is to make things that last a long time, both in quality and style. But when they asked us how we design for short life it became really hard, because we don’t and it go against everything we do. The nearest we get to fast fashion is our lease/rental program and our second hand concept where it is possible to do a fast or short update of your wardrobe.
But when we started to investigate wardrobe behaviours we realised it is a quite complex picture – where products that are designed to last for a long time might end up only being used once or twice and then thrown away – so is that slow or fast fashion? And polyester material that is considered being a material for fast fashion is actually the slowest material of all. It takes millions of years to create, it is durable during use and it takes 200 years to biodegrade.
So, what did we end up with?
1. The ‘Eternal Trench Coat’ was our slow product and became part of the technical cycle. Made of 100% recycled polyester and being 100% recyclable, we were able to establish both a circular life and a closed loop for this coat.
2. The ‘Throwaway Dress’, had a short life and ended up being part of the biological cycle. Made of 100% bio based material (non-woven Tencel) and being 100% compostable, it was intended for the compost after only a few wears. This meant it would go back to the soil and become nutrition again.
What we learned during this project was that to be able to create fully circular garments that are part of a circular economy, you have to start with the end in mind whilst still at the drawing table. Will the product be part of the biological or technical cycle? And let the criteria for that steer your different design decisions and product development. We had, for instance, a recycling company with us already during the design phase to help us make the right decisions in order to get full recyclability.
Do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry?
I believe fast fashion will exist in the future, but that it will look completely different. For instance, if you want a short update of your wardrobe, you may be able to achieve that in different ways—renting for a special occasion, or subscribing to a shared wardrobe, or by purchasing new garments that have been produced with a very small footprint, and that can easily be recycled or biodegraded. Perhaps we’ll even print our own garments using 3D printers in a local micro factory hub, or in our own homes.
Looking at the fashion system itself, what in particular do you feel needs to change in order for meaningful change to occur? And what excites and/or daunts you most about the industry’s future?
I am hopeful for the future of the fashion industry. We believe we should be able to keep enjoying fashion, and I believe the wardrobe of the future will be a diverse one, featuring a mix of short-life and long-life garments, new and second hand, and a mix of owned, rented or borrowed garments. It’ll be a beautiful wardrobe that changes and evolves at different speeds depending on its owner, without giving them a heavy conscience. And to succeed in achieving that, we should showcase what that wardrobe looks like and inspire customers to look at their wardrobe with fresh eyes.
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub Editor Reb Mery
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