Stem, Sarah Brunnhuber
Sarah Brunnhuber, STEM

New demands for sustainable production: The revolution of micro-companies?

Sustainable production

‘Sustainable production’ is a contradiction in terms – an oxymoron. Any production leaves an environmental imprint, unless it is based on the principle of regeneration. The focus on regenerative principles and practices is driven by the awareness that human activities are now affecting the earth so profoundly that they are leading to global climate change. Our current era has been labelled the Anthropocene: a shift that calls for rethinking and reinventing more sustainable design and production. In this article, I discuss whether local production chains necessarily equal sustainability in production and examine the significance of circular principles in this regard.

This calls for action across the board, from legislators, industry, consumers and public and private companies.

We are not utilizing the full potential of the world’s materials

In recent years, the media have highlighted the phenomenon of ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ : the date in given year when the global population has consumed the amount of resources that the planet can regenerate in a year. The date is also calculated for individual countries. In 2024, Earth Overshoot Day was 16 March for Denmark, compared to 1 August for the world as a whole. The date is based on complicated calculations, which should, naturally, be viewed with a critical eye. Nevertheless, it is striking to note that in 1970, Earh Overshoot Day for the world was 23 December. This suggests that many have little thought for the environment when it comes to consumption, and that our resources are not being fully utilized.

Several sources have documented that we scrap vast amounts of materials without utilizing their potential recycling value. One of these sources is The Circularity Gap Report Denmark, which was prepared by the Dutch consultancy firm Circle Economy in 2023. According to the report, in Denmark, the average consumption of virgin materials per person per year is 24.5 tonnes. This is higher than the EU average, which is 17 tonnes, and the global average, which is 12 tonnes.

According to Circle Economy, we need to reduce this figure to eight tonnes to reach a globally sustainable level of material consumption. The report also highlights the fact that only 4% of the materials we use in Denmark is reused or recycled. That does not mean that the remaining 96% is poorly utilized, since much of it is tied up in buildings, infrastructure and other long-term stock.
Still, 4% is not much, considering that the average global consumption of recycled and recirculated materials has been calculated at 7.2%. The report points to five primary focus areas in the effort to increase this figure for Denmark: construction, transportation, food, manufacturing and lifestyle. This calls for action across the board, from legislators, industry, consumers and public and private companies.

The waste hierarchy and long product lifespan

Changing the way we use materials is only possible if we activate all of society. New legislation is needed, industry will have to rethink product development and production, and we all need to be thoughtful about our use of materials. Independent makers and designers also have a responsibility for engaging in sustainable practices, and it makes sense for these – often small – companies to explore and experiment with recycling and recirculating materials.

One area that it would seem obvious to look into is product lifespan. Another major task is to examine whether the materials that the products are made of can be recycled and recirculated. Political decision-makers have a growing focus on the need for us to use tings for longer and to pass them on in a responsible way when we no longer need them or when they are worn out. Municipal waste sorting with multiple categories is one result of this focus, and the ‘waste hierarchy’ is one of the new terms we have learned and are beginning to use.

The waste hierarchy is divided into phases. The key point is that the greatest value is achieved when we manage to keep materials in the initial phases for as long as possible. The concept can be broken down into five phases: Prevention, Preparing for reuse, Recycling, Other recovery (e.g. energy recovery) and Disposal.

Energy recovery and Disposal will be familiar to everyone; the terms refer to incineration for energy production and landfilling respectively and represent the lowest levels of the hierarchy.

Reuse is also a familiar term to most people. One example is the recovery, cleaning and reuse of bottles. Prevention is about getting better at repairing the things we use as well as considering more carefully whether we actually need to acquire a particular product. Reuse and Prevention minimize resource use. Thus, keeping our materials in these two phases for longer offers the biggest climate benefit.

Recycling is the middle tier and refers to preparing things to be recirculated as new materials. Examples include textile products that are broken down into fibres that can be spun into new yarn and glass that is crushed and melted down to make new glass.

The phases are placed into a hierarchy because moving one level up leads to greater resource consumption. Thus, the longer we can keep our materials at a particular level, the longer their lifespan will be. Scholars often refer to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Butterfly Model’, which points to a long product lifespan as a crucial aspect of the circular economy. One of the butterfly’s wings represents the biological cycle, while the other refers to the technical cycle. In the biological cycle, the focus is on biodegradability and how material components can be safely returned to the environment. In the technical cycle, the focus is on keeping materials in use as long as possible before they turn to waste.

Local production

Not all but many Danish makers and designers engage in local production. That makes it relevant to examine what approaches can be used to make local production more sustainable. My main focus is on how lifespan and circularity principles can contribute to more sustainable local production. To that end, I explore the potential of establishing local production as a chain of connected processes – so-called micro-factories – and offer examples of specific initiatives in the individual steps of the manufacturing process that lead to more sustainable production.

Photo: Sarah Brunnhuber, STEM


Micro-factories connect multiple production links, for example textile production, printing and sewing or shredding textiles and spinning the fibres into new yarns for textile production. Several ongoing experiments are currently looking into the capacity of micro-factories to make local production profitable and to contribute to more sustainable production.

The paramount problem in the clothing industry is overproduction. The manufacturing of clothes for the Danish market far exceeds demand, and much of it has a poor fit and is made of low-quality materials. As a result, much of the clothing that is sold is discarded before it is worn out. Designer Sarah Brunnhuber, who is based in Copenhagen, found this wastefulness provoking. In response, she founded STEM: a micro-factory that makes clothes to order using recycled materials and a special way of weaving, cutting and sewing that eliminates material waste. Among other accolades, Brunnhuber received an Innobooster from Innovation Fund Denmark in 2021 and was accepted into a talent programme as part of the Danish Arts Foundation’s programme Den Unge Kunstneriske Elite (The Young Artistic Elite) in 2022.

Photo: Sarah Brunnhuber, STEM

A key principle in STEM’s production is that taking responsibility for every link in the production chain offers maximal influence on the materials, design and manufacturing of the products that are brought into the world. To STEM, this means making everything to order, with a delivery time of six to eight weeks. Minimizing waste is another key strategy. In conventional manufacturing of ready-made garments, up to 20% of the fabric ends up as scraps, which risk going to waste.

To address this issue, Brunnhuber has developed a form of jacquard weaving that weaves the individual pieces of the patterns into the fabric. The rest of the textile has a very loose weave, which turns to fringe instead of scraps when the pieces are cut. The fabric is woven from yarns that are 100% biodegradable. The target for the cotton yarns is that they should contain 50% recycled cotton fibres, and the viscose is made of Tencel yarn, which is one of the most environmentally friendly viscose yarns. Another core aspect of STEM’s mission is to build a strong bond between the garment and its owner. The specially woven textiles are thus an important element in STEM’s storytelling and philosophy, which Brunnhuber uses to bring added emotional value to the clothes.

Another interesting micro-factory is Rodinia Generation, which offers digitally printed clothes made to order. Rodinia Generation was founded by fashion designer Trine Young, who received support from Innovation Fund Denmark and EU Horizon 2020, among others. Most recently, in 2024, some large investment funds have also announced their interest. The company mission is to eliminate overproduction by producing small orders close to the customer and using technology that minimizes the consumption of water and chemicals.

Danish craft artists and designers

In addition to the micro-factories, several small crafts and design firms in Denmark are exploring how to incorporate sustainable approaches into the production chain from a technical-functional as well as an aesthetic-emotional perspective. The purpose is to promote a more sustainable use of clothes and textiles. The following is by no means an exhaustive list but is intended as inspiration for continued exploration. The list includes examples of companies that make things to order and offer personal customization, companies that upcycle used textiles into new products, a company that works with alternatives to conventional dyestuffs and a company that focuses on quality as a means of aesthetic sustainability.

Many companies are interested in the possibility of avoiding overproduction by making things to order. In addition to a small knitwear collection, Week of Wonder only produces pre-ordered items. The concept is based on customers booking an appointment in the showroom in Copenhagen or Aarhus, where they can see the collection and have their measurements taken. The size of the garment is then adapted to the customer’s personal measurements. The clothes are made in Portugal with a waiting time of four to six weeks from order to delivery. Son of a Tailor also offers to customize parts of its collection to the wearer’s personal measurements. Most products can be ready within one to two weeks – a quick turnaround made possible, in part, by the fact that the company owns a production facility in Portugal. While Week of Wonder produces collections and garments for women, Son of a Tailor makes T-shirts and knitwear for men.

There is also considerable interest in upcycling existing textiles. The companies I have mentioned here give used textiles a new life, while other companies use leftover material from their own production, including the socioeconomic company Sheworks , which uses leftover materials from other companies’ production. Martine Myrup buys textiles in charity shops and upcycles them into children’s shirts and other items. Vaer makes and sells sneakers made of upcycled jeans. While Martine Myrup makes one-off designs and always needs to consider the properties of various textiles, Vaer works exclusively in denim. Although denim may vary a great deal in appearance, the process is simplified by the fact that it is just one type of textile.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in alternative and plant-based dyestuffs. One example is the socioeconomic company I Tråd med Verden . Elemental Coloring is a very different type of company, which also takes an interest in using alternative dyestuffs. The company, which is a sub-brand of the major textile manufacturer UTG, designs and sells basic textiles dyed with plant-based and mineral dyestuffs and ancillary substances. This form of dyeing produces a colour palette of mainly light, soft pastels that will change over time.

The final example I will mention here is the knitwear company Hanne Linding Denmark, which makes garments for women. The company focuses on high quality and aesthetic appeal as source of sustainability. In this regard, it is similar to many small crafts and design companies that are based on exceptional craftsmanship and professionalism. The focus is on the user’s attachment to the product and its emotional value. These are some of the most challenging parameters to work with in relation to sustainability, because the climate impact ultimately depends on the life of the garment with the consumer. However, that does not make these factors any less significant.

An international perspective

If we take a look at history to compare the new Danish micro-factories with international concepts, one obvious precursor is Issey Miyake’s A-POC (A Piece of Cloth), launched in 1997. Originally, A-POC consisted of a ribbed fabric produced on a circular knitting machine with added seams or welds. The idea was that the consumer would cut the garments out of the fabric by cutting along the seams and welds.

This let the consumer personalize the piece, for example by choosing the length of the sleeves and deciding whether to make a dress or a top. The design focus was on exploring what happens in the transition from 2D to 3D: from flat textiles to spatial products. In terms of sustainability, the product aimed to minimize waste. Thus, leftover scraps could themselves be cut into smaller products, such as a bag, a bra or a pair of mittens. I do not know whether the concept was commercially successful, but it was instrumental in making Issey Miyake a globally recognized brand.

Today, the original A-POC concept has been further developed into A-POC ABLE. In this incarnation, the concept still aims to enable the consumer to influence the finished garment, but the aesthetic and technical aspects have undergone considerable change. Instead of rolls of ribbed fabric, the key effect now is a pleating technique that uses heat and water to define the shape of the individual garment.

One example of a fairly new international micro-factory is Unmade in London, which offers automated on-demand processes. Initially, Unmade offered a service that let individual consumers choose from a range of colour combinations and patterns to design their own sweater, which was then produced on the company’s digital knitting machine. Later, Unmade changed its approach and now offers the use of the underlying software technology to other companies. The technology can be incorporated into existing value chains to allow a company to offer personalized products.

Research and micro-factories

The outsourcing of Danish textile manufacturing to companies abroad led to a significant loss of knowledge about production processes. In the past, designers could just go to the production section to make a rapid prototype or have direct influence on decisions about colours and materials, but now, these processes are spread over long distances. The result is either lengthy development processes, because it takes time to send samples back and forth, or decision-making based on pictures, technical drawings and text documents, which carries a greater risk of miscommunication. Moreover, in many cases, the company creating the design does not own the production facility, which makes it harder to influence materials, processes and workflows.

The focus on recycling textiles to produce new fibres further complicates the challenge of insufficient knowledge and qualifications when it comes to production. We see this, for example, in new yarns that contain recirculated material from scrapped household textiles. We know nothing about the technical performance of these fibres, as they represent novel material combinations. For example, we now have a material category labelled ‘other fibres’, because there is no way to determine precisely what fibres the yarns contain. Furthermore, the material may also contain harmful chemicals that we cannot identify or account for, a challenge that also applies, for example, when ceramic makers or artists buy or make ‘recycled clay’.

VIA University College
Photo: Poul-Erik Jørgensen


These issues and considerations were the basis of the three-year research project READY, which began in June 2023. READY is a major Danish research project with 13 university and commercial partners, which receives support from Innovation Fund Denmark. The project is based at the Centre for Applied Research in Textile, Design & Circularity at VIA University College. We have organized the practical part of the project as a micro-factory. In collaboration with our partners, we can experiment with the processes, from breaking textiles down into fibres, spinning, weaving, knitting and digital printing to washing, wear and pilling tests of the textiles. Unlike the micro-factories described above, the goal of the research project is not to develop new products but to generate knowledge. Our work addresses a wide range of issues, for example how much virgin material it is necessary to add to produce a hardwearing material, what colour scales we can use in yarns made from pre-dyed fibres and how the materials perform on power looms and knitting machines. Briefly put, we aim to develop textiles with a long lifespan and to discover how production technology can contribute to sustainability in every link of textile production. What is special about our set-up is that we can complete the process from fibre to finished textile in a very short amount of time. Thus, we can test different possibilities fairly quickly with full knowledge of every aspect of the process. We also have access to a professional test lab, allowing us to quickly measure properties such as pilling, tensile strength and wearability. Normally, this process takes longer, because samples have to be sent back and forth between the Danish development department and a manufacturer in another country.

We study what is the best way to recycle recovered textile to make new textiles as sustainably as possible. At this point, we do not know whether producing new textiles from recovered textiles offers a sustainability benefit, but through experiments in our micro-factory READY, we will be able to answer that question.

Next step: regeneration

Micro-factories, circular principles and recycling do not make clothes, textiles or other products sustainable: as pointed out in the beginning of this article, it will be near impossible to establish a fully sustainable production, no matter how hard we try. However, these steps are a good way to get part of the way towards taking responsibility for the products we bring into the world and demonstrating how other companies can adapt (parts of) their production. In recent years, ‘regeneration’ has gained prominence as the new concept to replace the focus on sustainability and circular principles in achieving the green transition. Regenerative practices not only help stop the negative impact on the climate but actively helps repair and rebuild it. One example is agriculture that absorbs more CO2 than it emits. It will be interesting to see what contributions makers and designers can make in this regard.

Thus, it is not enough to pursue circular principles aimed at transforming our traditional linear and isolated approach to product development. To make a real and substantial difference, we need to embrace regenerative practices. The fact that makers and designers are interested in using organic and recycled materials will not in itself change the linear business model, whose main focus is on production and sales. Fortunately, many makers and designers are already aiming to create durable products that will stand up to extensive use. My point is that to bring about real change, we need to make the usage phase and a long lifespan a much more active focus in product development and production than they are today and in a way which ensures that these aspects contribute to earnings. Sustainable production requires that product development and the usage phase go hand in hand. Both industry and the small crafts and design firms need a holistic and inclusive approach to sustainable product development. With growing complexity, many will need to supplement their own professional skills and knowledge with new learning and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The elephant in the room is the vast number of products that are manufactured, including, sadly, many superfluous ones. To many crafts and design firms, whose survival relies on generating profits by selling new products, the idea of reducing the number of products sent to market may seem overwhelming. On the other hand, spending less time on product development and production will free up time for working with repair services, maintenance, resale, upcycling and, eventually, recycling materials to make new products. The consideration of these aspects will be included in a sustainable production.

Makers and designers will need new knowledge about production links, the usage phase and recycling. This knowledge will be key to ensuring the sector’s responsible and sustainable development. Political decision-makers and others in positions of power have to be involved in shaping the conditions, but what really makes a difference is professional skills, expertise and knowledge.


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Theme: Green Production

Humanity faces massive challenges to preserve the planet as more and more people have the opportunity to join the consumption party. Denmark is particularly weak on SDG 12: responsible consumption and production – a crucial SDG in the effort for a better climate. It is imperative that something must be done now to reduce the consequences of overconsumption and fast fashion.

Together with the Danish Institute for Cultural Studies and the Danish Design Center, Danish Craft & Design Association wants to qualify the debate on a sustainable production culture and launch a unifying effort for the craft and design field with a ‘Green Craft & Design Guide’.

Formkraft is kick-starting the project with a series of articles focusing on sustainable production, new materials and consumer behavior. Read