Why Sustainabilization Is Taking Too Long: The Missing Link

Sustainabilization is the greatest challenge of the Anthropocene. Everyone talks about it, but there seems to be too little change to make a difference fast enough.

I usually write about case studies from projects I’ve worked on. This article is different. It’s about you, and about all of us, sharing our experiences and ideas to find the missing link.

After 10 years in Munich, I’ve recently moved to Leipzig, the most dynamic city in Germany. Lonely Planet names Leipzig as Germany’s ultimate travel destination – cooler than Berlin and more popular than Munich. It’s not only the fastest growing city but also one of the greenest cities in Germany with the largest inner-city forest in Europe.

Showing Leipzig as Green City

Leipzig’s skyline and city forest (Photo: MDR – simply genius)

The high share of students and millennials living in the city make it one of the top German cities when it comes to sustainability. So it was almost inevitable for me to meet young, engaged and experienced people who make their contribution to a more sustainable world.

Sachsenleinen for example is a non-profit organisation and launches, manages and implements projects to make most sustainable use of natural fibres  – not only for the textile and fashion industry but as well for technical applications. For almost 30 years, the organisation has been working on supporting industry and public players to find and implement more sustainable solutions. For example by replacing petroleum-based plastics with bio-composites, using natural fibres for the high-tech sector, enhancing regional biodiversity, recultivating salinised farmland using adapted raw material plants, or replacing water-intensive cotton.

Learning about all those fascinating projects and understanding what is already possible today in terms of sustainable technologies, processes and materials was thrilling and disillusioning at the same time. Why disillusioning? Because most of it has not yet been scaled up to a level that would really make a difference. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

Showing sisal hemp and flax plants

Natural Fibres (Graphic: Sachsenleinen e.V.)

Fleece-fabrics Made from Recycled Waste

Sachsenleinen joined forces with a SOEX a recycling company and the STFI (Saxonian Textile Research Insitute) for used clothes to develop a technology to produce non-woven fleece fabrics from waste materials.

Those materials had to be burned in the past, mainly because it’s impossible to separate out different raw materials spun into one yarn (e.g. a cotton and polyester or cotton and lycra mix). That’s a growing problem as the volume of used cloth as well as the share of cloth made from mixed fibres are increasing. At the same time, the quality of used fabrics is getting worse, which makes industrial recycling more and more ineffective. The share of cloth that can be recycled is decreasing, while the effort and cost of recycling are increasing.

This new type of fleece fabric production can be part of a more sustainable and more efficient recycling process in the future. It even makes use of the fleece dust that develops as a by-product of the recycling process.

Lightweight Bio-composites

Showing a flying light weight helicopter

One of the most sustainable light-weight helicopters, the Coax2D by EDM Aerotec (Photo: EDM Aerotec)

Natural fibres replace carbon fibres in bio-composites for high-tech applications such as helicopter or automobile body parts. Scientists of the MERGE research center for lightweight technologies at Technical University Chemnitz developed a bio-based hybrid cabin door and other structural parts for ultra-light-weight helicopter COAX 2D (developed and produced by EDM Aerotec). This material could make the helicopter even more sustainable buy further reducing fuel consumption of currently 20 l per flight hour. For reference: small piston-powered helicopters currently need 30-60 l per hour, turbine powered helicopters 76 up to 800 l per hour.

Picture showing the interior of an S-class Mercedes built with light-weight bio composites

Using sustainable light-weight biocomposites for an S-Class Interior (Photo: TU Chemnitz)

Fiber-plastic-composites are not new to the automobile industry but have been used in automobile production for more than two decades. On average,  3.6 kg of natural fibres from flax, hemp, kenaf or cotton can be found in every German car. The focus of joint research and development of MERGE and Mercedes-Benz is developing a light-weight version of natural fibre enhanced composite materials with the same or even better technical and safety-relevant parameters for a more sustainable car body.

LyoCell made from Organic and Agricultural Waste

Birla Cellulose (part of BIRLA group, one of the largest producers of cellulose and viscose) and Nanollose (an innovative Australian company) cooperate in order to produce a rayon fibre with minimal environmental impact. Nanollose’s innovation is the development of a process that produces cellulose from industrial organic and agricultural waste using a distinctive bacterium. And in a second step, making a high-quality rayon fibre while reducing the environmental impact to a minimum.

The production of cellulose, viscose and lyocell currently relies on wood pulp, which means it inevitably involves the felling of trees and/or requires the use of arable land. This new microbial cellulose is a truly sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional forms of tree-based cellulose.

Luxury Handbags Made from Apples

Showing 3 handbags with different designs made from apples

Happygenie sustainable handbags made from apple waste (Photo: Happygenie)

These handbags are made from apple waste, a by product of apple juice production. Swiss happy-  teamed up with an Italian company that produces artificial leather to develop a leather-like water-resistant material. And since 2016 they are successfully selling a truly cruelty free, modular and customizable luxury handbag – probably the most sustainable leather-like handbag world-wide.

The entire value chain from raw-material (apple waste) to the final handbag is located in Italy. Everything is produced within a 700 km radius which further adds to its sustainability.

Super Hard, Super-Sharp Multi-Use Wood Knives

sustainabilization and sustainable products: a wooden knife on a plate

Knife Made from Hardened Wood (Photo:

Hard materials such as ceramics or metallic alloys are essential in many engineering applications. Most of the currently used hard materials are non-renewable, expensive and have a huge negative environmental impact.

American scientists have now developed a process in which wood can be hardened to achieve a 23-fold increase in hardness. To demonstrate the outstanding material features, they made a table knife that is three times sharper than ordinary table knifes and wooden nails that are not only as functional as steel nails but even more durable. Wood is immune to rust – one of the major problems in terms of durability and longevity of steel nails.

Both applications demonstrate a sustainable and low-cost alternative to conventional hard materials and will hopefully soon be implemented in engineering projects world-wide.

The Missing Link in Sustainabilization

There are many ideas and projects out there that could accelerate sustainabilization worldwide. Public authorities, especially in Europe, financially support research and development of sustainable technologies. But very often financial support only covers the phase of basic scientific research. When it comes to transfering the findings to real market-ready products, the research institutes and partnering companies are left alone.

That’s not a problem if an innovation is directed towards a single use application. But very often an innovation towards sustainability has the potential to be implemented across multiple industries and applications.

Light-weight bio-composites, for instance, are developed to improve sustainability of high tech engineering like aircrafts or automobiles. But they could also be used for consumer goods such as furniture, luggage, bags, toys, sporting equipment and many others. Bio-based, compostable composites could also replace the micro-plastics currently used in cosmetics, colours, packaging etc. Fleece and insulating materials made from natural fibres could replace a lot of carbon based materials used in construction but also in medical applications.

Showing a Mercedes Car and single body parts made from biocomposites

Car Body Parts to be Sustainably Reenginered (Photo: Sachsenleinen)

So why does only the automotive industry use natural fibres, implementing a technology that has been around for more than 20 years? One reason is the structure of the industry and its players. The automotive industry is dominated by big players with sufficient resources for research and development. And innovation is a key motivation for consumers to buy a new car. That’s why the automotive industry is probably the most important player in partnering with scientific institutes and universities. They have a clear vision how a distinctive research project can increase their competitiveness. And even more importantly, they have the funds to transform the results of a basic research project into a specific applied project with a clearly defined outcome.

Other consumer goods industries are often dominated by big retailers, whereas the producers and suppliers are mainly small and medium enterprises. That is definitely true for the apparel industry, but also for the DIY and gardening sector. And the more fragmented an industry, the lower the chance to find players with sufficient financial and human resources to invest into development of more sustainable products or technologies.

How Can We Accelerate Sustainabilization?

What needs to be done in order to bring all those brilliant ideas and existing technologies to life more broadly, and preferably now? Here are a few ideas that come to mind:

  1. Public funding for innovation in sustainability should not stop at the end of a basic research project: Researching potential markets, defining product or technological parameters for specific applications, adapting a basic invention, whether it’s a technology, a raw material or a semi-finished product and transforming it into market-ready, competitive products need support too and should be publicly funded as well.
  2. B2B-marketplaces for sustainable products, technologies, and materials: The food industry already has a few B2B marketplaces like BioLinked, Fooduser, Artos, or Fullharvest. And there are a few specialized B2B marketplaces like cirplus for the procurement of recycled plastics, or sourcegreenpackaging for sustainable packaging options. But there is no marketplace yet for cross-industry projects – like using bio-based, compostable plastics for cosmetics or in the toy industry. Anyone volunteers?
  3. More support for sustainable alternatives from multibrand retailers: Where large multibrand retailers dominate a sector (e.g. DIY), we need more support for selected manufacturers who develop sustainable products. Currently, the sustainabilization efforts of big multibrand retailers are limited to making their own business processes more sustainable. Investing in selected strategic suppliers and their research efforts needs a lot of persuasion, trust and real partnership.

I hope you will add your ideas, experiences and knowledge!  We are looking forward to any comment that helps to close the missing link and accelerate sustainabilization globally.


About the Author:

Heike Blank has worked for big organisations such as VF Europe and s.Oliver but also for niche brands such as Ecko Unltd. and Zoo York in top executive positions. Her extensive experience with opening and managing own retail, partner stores, concessions and shop-in-shops in 23 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia make her an expert in distribution, expansion and brand building. She is now working with sustainabilization addicts in order to identify ways to accelerate and maximise the effects of current sustainabilization efforts. Read more of her work here and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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