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ESG Outlook: Ulrika Björk of Polygiene Group on How Laundering Less Helps

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Ulrika Björk, CEO of stay-fresh technology company Polygiene Group, discusses how responsible brands who design products that last will grab market share.

Ulrika Björk, CEO, Polygiene Group

Name: Ulrika Björk

Title: CEO

Company: Polygiene Group

What has been your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last five years?

Our driving force at Polygiene has always been about making the textile industry more sustainable by enabling consumers to make a difference. We’ve accomplished many ESG-related wins since 2018, when we re-positioned our company. The latest is the launch of our new mission, “For Mindful Living,” which is a call-out to everyone to be more aware and caring in their daily lives. We promise to enable, inspire and connect people to live more mindful lives with everything we do. We strongly believe that end consumers need to be more involved in making change happen. The 17 UN goals are built for companies—but what if we could convey those powerful messages to us as individuals?

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What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes? How do you try to minimize the environmental impact of the clothes you buy?  

Since I joined Polygiene and realized the environmental impact the textile industry has, I have become much more mindful of my own consumption and behavior. In the past years, I’ve reduced my overall consumption in general, and I’ve reduced it dramatically for new garments. Today I use what I already have and buy a lot from the secondhand market. Fast-growing platforms make it easy and accessible to find pre-loved items. I try to only buy new items if I really need something that I can’t find elsewhere, but it always gives me a guilty conscience. I am also recirculating the clothes I don’t use anymore to prolong the lifetime of every garment. In my opinion, a produced, unused garment is the worst waste of resources.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping?

As I work in the industry, I have insight into who the “good” and “bad” brands are. The ones who work seriously and are honest and transparent with their ESG strategies will have my support. I don’t want to call out any brand names specifically, but I have stopped buying certain brands because of the absence of a social responsibility strategy. During Covid, we saw a lot of brands that didn’t fulfill their commitments which had negative consequences for many innocent people. Conversely, I love supporting brands who really “walk the talk” and work seriously with their ESG strategies.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?  

I try to contribute as much as I can by making small changes in my everyday life. I am far from being fanatical, but at least I am aware of the issues and conscious of my choices. For example, I commute to the office every day by train and use a carpool instead of owning a car. I make fewer business trips than before Covid, and I will further reduce my business travel moving forward. I am not a total vegetarian, but I eat less and less meat. My three daughters are vegans, and it’s just a matter of time before they have converted me too! Generally, I’ve stopped consuming material things. The older I get, the more I realize that material things don’t mean much to me, and the less you have, the better life is.

What would you say is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?  

The biggest misconception is that some people think buying a new garment made from recycled materials is a sustainable choice, but it’s not. The most sustainable garment is the one that is not produced. If we have any chance to reach the 2030 goals, there is only room for every person to buy a maximum of three new items a year. And those garments must be designed to last as long as possible and produced sustainably, ethically and responsibly. The consumer needs to be prepared to take on the whole lifetime of this product and prolong that lifetime by wearing more and washing less—and definitely not to keep it unused in the wardrobe.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?  

When the pandemic started, Polygiene was very fast in launching an antiviral solution for textiles. The awareness of bacterial and viral contamination increased, and we gained a lot of interest in the industry. That enabled us to spread our mission of transforming consumables into durables.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

Polygiene just conducted an LCA analysis comparing a Polygiene-treated garment with an untreated garment, and the results were really exciting. The study was conducted by an external consultant and verified by a third party. We discovered that if you train three times a week and skip every other wash, you can reduce the environmental impact by 37 percent compared to if you wash it after every use. And if you skip more laundry cycles (which is possible with Polygiene StayFresh™ technology), the positive impact will be even more significant.

What do you consider the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity for securing meaningful change?

The communication! Brands have an incredible opportunity to speak from their platforms and educate their consumers, but I think brands are generally not that good at this. You could argue that brands just want to sell as many clothes as possible, but the responsible brands who design products that last will win in the end and grab market share from those who take the issue less seriously. Most people are unaware of their consumption’s environmental impact on the planet. We always point out to companies that they need to be more responsible, but it’s the end consumer who will have the greatest impact, so they need to contribute as well.