Bioeconomy & Sustainable Fashion #2 – From Wood Fire to Wood Fibres: A More Sustainable Future for Forestry?

Produced by Camille Duran / Co-hosted by Joshua Burguete Kirkman / Published by Linnéa Hultén / Coordinated by Han Nguyen / Transcribed by Tuly Sarah Costa/ Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.

The forestry sector is facing multiple challenges all over the globe. In Europe, the declining demand for printing paper and the growing global competition among producers threaten the sector. Wood is also used to produce heat, and today, a large number of environmentalists and experts oppose this carbon intensive activity, pointing to more long-term solutions instead. Forestry needs to figure out new products that can be made out of cellulosic fibres, like textiles for instance!

What does the process of making wood fibre look like, and is it sustainable? What will it take for the forestry sector to show a promising future? This episode features views from Dagfinn Hoybråten (Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers), Sven-Erik Bucht (Swedish Minister of Rural Affairs), Tobias Köhnke (Cellutex), and Sigrid Barnekow (MISTRA Future Fashion).

Made possible by:
The Nordic Council of Ministers is the official inter-governmental body for co-operation in the Nordic Region. Representatives of the Nordic governments meet at the Council of Ministers to draft Nordic conventions, etc.
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Transcript from the Episode

Camille Duran (CD): I love cutting wood, I don’t know why! I should talk to my therapist about it. In the meantime, we’re going to talk about forestry, opportunities and challenges for the bio-economy, and more specifically in relation to sustainable fashion. Welcome.

If you celebrate Christmas, there is one tree you are probably just cut at this time of the year. Now, I have one question for you: once Christmas is over, what are you going to do with that tree? Maybe you’d like to turn it into a wood fibre shirt? How cool is that?

Think about it, it’s a perfect activity to do with the kids on the weekend, especially if they like playing with heavy chemicals and solvents. Sounds interesting? Here is how to make wood fibre with Audrey Hammer:


Audrey Hammer (AH): First, turn your tree into cellulosic fibre – that’s what we do when we want to make paper. We have a video on the episode page that will show you how it’s generally done.

The problem you are facing now is that the fibres you just made are only a few millimetres long. Hard to make a tee shirt out of this! Cotton for instance is much easier to turn into yarn because it is around four centimetres long already. But with paper fibres, you need an extra step.

By the way, you should really get the cat off the table!

We’re going to use a technique called solution spinning. Okay kids?


AH: Put the fibres into this liquid…it’s a [coughs loudly]…solvent. This will dissolve your fibres into a viscous substance.

What’s the next step? Extruding your substance into another liquid but with this new liquid, your cellulose is not soluble. Magic! Magic! Your substance is going to coagulate into fibres.

Now you just need to wash them, dry them, and cut them. You finally obtain your 40 millimetre long fibres. Voila! [Coughs loudly again].

CD: Hey sweetie, are you okay? Alright drink some water you’ll feel better soon.

Okay, I guess you got the message: the process used until today is not quite environmentally friendly. Everyone agrees, it’s no secret. Should we give up? Absolutely not! There is promising research under way.

In a world where cotton production is reaching its limit, in a world where the demand for fibres is going to keep increasing as population grows, we really need to figure this out. Can sustainable forestry practices support the textile sector, and if yes, how?



CD: You are listening to The Green Exchange, episode two, of our series about Bio-economy & Sustainable Fashion, From Wood Fire to Wood fibres: A More Sustainable Future for Forestry?





CD: First, what does all this have to do with fire? Well, besides providing wood pulp to the paper industry, biomass is typically interesting for producing heat.  And at least in northern Europe, it’s a hot topic on the agenda.

We are hoping to dig deeper in an upcoming series of The Green Exchange, but for now it’s enough to say that:

One: Burning biomass is currently considered as ‘slow renewable’ energy – since it takes at least eighty to a hundred years for the resource – wood – to be replenished. This means it qualifies for tax credits, subsidies and incentives in many countries. And many environmentalists and experts don’t like this, and they are probably right…

Two: Because today, we know how to get hot water from greener sources than waste and biomass… we’ll talk about it.

And three: The value we could create from each tonne of wood harvested could be much, much, much higher than the value of wood as a fuel, if we turn it into fibres, for instance.
It’s exactly the same thinking as in episode one, where we talked about turning waste fish skin into leather as a much higher value alternative than producing fish meal.

So… moving from wood fire to wood fibres:

    • Question 1: Can we create much higher value for each tonne of wood we have on our hands?
    • Question 2: Can we do this in a way that significantly reduces the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere in comparison to burning biomass?
    • Question 3: Can we use fibre production processes that are truly respectful of the environment? I don’t like this whole idea of dumping chemicals everywhere, do you?
    • Question 4: Can those fibres last, can they be re-used and recycled so we enter a closed loop system?

In short: Can we say our forestry sector has greener days ahead? And if not green, what colour should our forests be?


CD: On the textile front now: well, you’ve probably heard the story. The global textile production is expected to increase threefold to reach 240 million yearly tonnes by 2050. At the same time, the world production of cotton is considered to have reached to its limit and is starting to seriously compete with food production. The cotton production is also associated with water scarcity, high use of fertilizer and hazardous pesticides, loss of habitat and soil degradation.


Long story short, additional sources of textile fibres are needed to face the emerging environmental issues related to climate change, water management and food security.

So again my friends. Please, please, please – this series about Bio economy & Sustainable Fashion is important! Let’s share it far and wide, because we need to make some noise about those issues. Talk about cotton and wood fibres next time you’re having dinner with friends, or at the Christmas dinner!


CHILD: Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, can we open the presents?

MOTHER: Not yet, sweetie, first we need to talk about cellulosic fibre with uncle Jim!


CD: Alright let’s start digging – first let’s take a look at where our forests spread in Europe. We have my colleague Josh on the line. Hi Josh.


Joshua Burquete Kirkman (JBK): Hi Camille, good to be here mate!

CD: Good to have you. Um, we discussed sending you on a space shuttle to take a couple of pictures and see exactly where most forests are…but I understand, we were a bit tight in terms of budget?

JBK: Yeah, look…I mean, I though space travel got a lot cheaper since Elon Musk and Spacex started launching rockets daily into the stratosphere, but… Look, spoke to Elon and he really couldn’t come up with a good deal for us on this one. And I spoke to the guys at NASA and they’re all out of money themselves, so… Yeah, I had to find other solutions here.

CD: Hm, that was unexpected. What was the plan B?

JBK: Yeah so I thought I would go on Google maps instead and, well it’s not as fancy but ….

CD: Alright, let’s do with what we have. So tell me…

JBK: Well basically, most forest density is in the North as you can imagine, we put a map in the complementary resources section, for everyone who wants to check it out for themselves. In Finland, 72% of the land area is covered by forest. Sweden is at about 58%. Then around the alps you can see some serious density, Austria, France, Germany and central Europe is also doing okay.

CD: So it is a very significant industry. I guess that gives us a good idea of where the potential is for cellulosic fibre production.

JBK: Yeah, the action is really happening in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Austria in fact.

And look, seven out of the ten biggest European paper companies are in those four countries. The largest pulp producers are Finland and Sweden with around 12 megatons (MT) per year. Actually, each produce double amount of wood pulp for paper than what Russia produces. This is UN data. And Sweden and Finland combined produce more than China.

Now here is the thing: transportation has become so cheap that it’s quite easy to get materials processed for a much lower cost in another country, and you get an end product back in another form.

CD:  I see where you’re going with this. So, if there was a process that you need to run as part of your operations, a process that is chemical intensive and very expensive to control in Europe – where you actually need to treat the chemicals and do things properly…

JBK: Oh yeah, I’d do it in China, and I’d bring my product back to Europe afterwards.

CD: Smart, Josh, smart…. [Awkward pause].

Hey listeners! Sounds familiar? Yeah, that’s what is happening with viscose production today. Let’s talk about alternatives to this crazy practice. Thanks for passing by Josh, I hope we can send you into space very soon.

JBK: Ciao!





CD: Before we keep going with our investigation, I would like to thank the Nordic Council of Ministers for helping make this episode possible. They are the official body for Nordic intergovernmental co-operation and are of course quite active on the issues we are discussing in this series. I had the chance to host a discussion with their General Secretary, Dagfinn Hoybråten, as well as with the Swedish Minister of Rural Affairs, Sven-Erich Bucht. And of course, we talked about the future of forestry, bio materials and sustainable fashion.

Here are a couple of highlights from their comments, introducing the debate:

Dagfinn Hoybråten (DH): So I think what we’re focusing much on in the Nordic region is lobbying for better EU regulations on harmful chemicals – it’s high on environmental agenda in Nordic countries – and calling for supplier requirements on the supplier’s side for sustainable textiles. This together is actually creating opportunities for innovation and later on commercial developments.


DH: I think there’s one aspect of the crossroads of the public and private sectors, and the research sector, that it is often over looked in the public debate.

CD: Right.

DH: And that really affects the regulation that can have on creating business opportunities, and together with innovation there’s actually a huge market when regulators move in and decide some standards, or regulate some demands, or even prohibit some materials.


Sven-Eric-Bucht (SEB): We have our tradition of world-leading & Innovation and we have a lot of trees…a lot of trees.


SEB: The old product of viscose was not green or sustainable, but new developments look very promising.

CD: This is where we should stop for a few minutes because those new developments could unleash the whole sector. Let’s talk about this.

The polluting methods we described earlier are a hundred years old. The solvents are rare, and obviously the processes we have been using in this industry are not environmentally sound, most of it is done in Asia. But more recently, research & innovation efforts have started to look at new solvents for cellulose and viable alternatives for industry.

Conclusive? Well, not yet but rather encouraging it seems.


Tobias Köhnke (TK): The research into solvents has really exploded in the last ten years.

CD: This is Tobias Köhnke from Cellutex – an advocacy platform which is basically trying to promote and ensure the production of cellulose-based textiles in Europe. Also participating in our live talk show in Stockholm in November.

TK: And we have to take care of that fundamental research and lift it up to applied research as well to develop new processes and for that we need test facilities, test beds, and so on – which we don’t really have.

CD: So, more fundamental research primarily, more applied research, more testing. And of course this implies, more innovation money.

If you want to know more about what specific activities need support, we are publishing a few links on the episode page that will give you the full picture. Just connect to our website, click on the series Bio-economy & Sustainable Fashion and hopefully our resources section will make you happy.





One more thing on research…

Sigrid Barnekow (SB): We’re looking at fibers which is really important, but we need to look at it throughout Life Cycle Assessments.

CD: This point was made by Sigrid Barnekow, who is the Director at the Swedish Research Program “Mistra Future Fashion”.

SB: When analyzing new fibres for instance, you need to assess how it will work in the production, and how it will work when you use it, and then recycle it. So at the first glance it can look really good, right? But then if you look at the facts throughout the whole life cycle it can be a totally different story.


SB: And today we lack that type of data. We don’t have sufficient data on the existing fibres either because we have done some assumptions in the assessment some years ago that still hang around.  So we need to advance and progress when it comes to having scientific data that proves that this is sustainable, the fibre is sustainable, the process is sustainable and so on.

CD: And yes you remember, we’ve talked about this earlier in the series in the first episode of this series when discussing the potential of fish leather.


This brings us to our last point for today:

Let’s say we wake up in a few years and we can put cellulosic fibres on the market in a sustainable way – we found the magic recipe for a solvent. A solvent that is so clean you could even drink it.

Do we solve everything with this new solvent? Well actually, we would probably dissolve everything with a solvent… What I mean is, is everything solved…but not with the solvent itself…yeah. Do we dissolve the situation? Ahhhhhh…

[ROBOT VOICE]: Have we solved the situation.

CD: Have we solved the situation! That’s it, thank you! Well, let me ask this: what happens to those fibres once they are on the market?


SB: We need to also look at the rest of the lifecycle. We need to look at the production, we need to look at how we use our clothes, how to prolong our clothes, the lifetime of our clothes.

CD: Lifetime, let’s focus on this shall we? Like cotton, cellulosic fibres are very difficult to recycle. Actually, if you want to sound smart at the next meeting or coffee break, you can say something like: “Well, you know fibres in general make it hard to close the loop right? Because they degrade”.

Ok so how do we solve this? how do we solve the degradation issue? Personally, I see only 3 solutions.

[VOICE CLIP: All revolutions are impossible until they happen. Then they become inevitable.]

  • Either we make them so environment friendly that we can compost them. Yes, composting it, so we can return this carbon to the soil – that’s closing the loop. Now, we are already struggling to put systems in place so we can properly compost our food and create ‘clean’ closed loops. But why not…sell it to me.
  • Second solution, well recycling them, I guess. We can turn those fibres into another type of material to supply another sector, as long as we are not creating another problem, or transferring the problem to another sector.
  • Third solution, if you make those fibbers really tasty and clean for the human body, well, we could…eat it. You think I’m kidding? Well…I guess we’ll find out

CD: Regardless, one fundamental idea here is that we need to paint on the wall of all the manufacturers in the world: design for longevity. That’s the best thing we can do right now to limit the impact of this industry, and the impact of our fancy life styles that, of course, we don’t want to sacrifice.

And we need to make brands feel guilty of not designing products for longevity. Brands, this song is for you:

[Guilty, by Marina & the Diamonds] “Guilty on the run, and I know what I’ve done / Guilty on the run, and I’m never forgiven”


CD: It goes against the model they have built their business on until today, which is basically making cheap stuff in Asia that will break down or degrade. Shame on you brands! And shame on us for buying it!

If we keep the same design philosophy as today and keep stimulating the same consumption patterns, you can make any kind of sustainable fibre mainstream, it will not solve it… It’s just one part of the equation.

Now, the good news is: when you start designing for longevity at the same time as you are shifting your business model – moving towards ‘product as a service’, for instance – well then you can actually see strong economic incentives and more growth potential. And you know what? We’re going to look at how this specifically applies to the textile sector in our Circular Economy series, and we will tell all the secrets.

The best way to stay posted on this is to click the ‘Subscribe’ button on your podcast app.

It’s time to close this episode, we’re not done talking about this, but the insights we shared today are fundamental to steer development efforts into the right direction. At the end of our live talk show last month in Stockholm, we concluded on the need to strengthen collaboration between the forestry and fashion sectors. Everyone seemed to agree. We could also feel that everyone was enthusiastic and optimistic in the closing remarks. Here for instance was Dagfinn Hoybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers:

DH: We can come together: the research, the innovation part, the business, the people, and the public sector. I think we can really become strong. I am hopeful. I think the potential is there, and there are so many good forces that can work together to make this happen.


CD: So, from wood fire to wood fibres – are we there yet? Not really, but it’s definitely a hot topic with encouraging perspectives, and we will keep you posted of course.

Let us know your questions: Or on Facebook, or on Twitter, or send a pigeon or something.

We wish you a Merry Christmas – or whatever you are celebrating – quality time with family and friends, and please, don’t forget to compost your Christmas tree and make sure it doesn’t end up in an incinerator – it matters.

Back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment. Keep up the good work, in the meantime.


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