Sustainability in Textile Services. Towards A Circular Economy, by Dr. Geert Böttger. WOPCOM Blog

Sustainability is gaining momentum in Europe. Supported and often initiated by governments and non governmental organizations institutions and companies are establishing policies and parameters of sustainability for their economic activities. Thus sustainability is integrated in the parameters of economic success.

The importance of ecological and social values is increasing, although companies use them very differently. Sustainable efforts range from legitimation decor, possibly urged by supervisors, to fundamental missions of entrepreneurs and companies. Europe has all of that and many companies in between. However, social and ecological values are increasingly reflected and pursued in the society, which means at consumers, in political institutions and non governmental initiatives.

Increasing responsibility of textile services
Textile services are growing in health & care, tourism and also workwear.  Hence the exploitation of natural resources is increasing, more waste produced, and also human resources are in higher demand. Thus the responsibility of textile services to use environmental resources, with preserving caution, and to enable acceptable working conditions mounts up along the value chain.

Textile services are in itself sustainable, because washing and repair enables multiple use of textiles. However, this is nowadays only a base, which can be improved in many respects, and  which should be improved to increase sustainability. In a holistic concept, we see the following dimensions to act more sustainable

Components of Sustainability

(1) energy consumption
(2) water consumption
(3) usage of chemicals
(4) transport
(5) sustainability of textiles rented out
(6) responsible conditions for labor.

Very many initiatives, projects and investments are done and on their way in these areas. Here we want to describe only in very broad terms where the efforts to act more sustainable in textile services are standing, and where they will thrive for.

Currently we see broadly two approaches in sustainability policies:
(1) increasing efficiency in using resources
(2) ban and substitution of harmful materials.

More efficient use of resources
Initially the companies were heading to reduce environmental burden by reducing the consumption or increase the efficiency of resources. Target is the reduction of environmental burden in a linear perspective according to the motive: „Less harm“. This was very successful in some areas. For example relative to the water consumption in the washing process, Dr. Stafan Vautrin, product manager at Christeyns, said: „Water consumption is in many applications extremely low so that we have reached a system barrier“.

Ban and substitution of harmful substances
The second line of sustainability policies is aiming at the integration of production materials and used textiles in a recycle process. This means: do not use materials and processes, which are harmful for environment or health. Motto: „No harm“. Target is to develop processes and use materials, which can be used again and again. Aim is a perfect, endless recycling of material. Textile services enable in this line of thinking an endless loop of use and reuse.

Future: total recycling
If you understand that urban resources are not indefinite, but finite, it seems logical that recycling ideally should be developed to a closed loop of materials. Thus the well known „Cradle to Cradle“ approach looks at waste and trash as material for the next loop in materials. To enable this next loop, the waste in production and at the end of the textile life cycle should provide high value material. Cradle to Cradle has defined for the recycling a biological cycle and a technical cycling process.
Most important insight of the Cradle to Cradle concept is that the design of the product and the production processes has to keep up front in mind to use only material and production processes, which allow for a high value recycling. Thus the whole textile value chain from fiber production to textile care and sorting for recycling at the end of the textile life cycle need to be controlled. For biological recycling attention is focused on regaining biochemichal matters and composting. The technical recycling process concentrates on maintenance, repair and reuse. Overall the target is  to minimize loss of material, ideally to minimize the loss to zero.


Graph Circular Economy textile Services

Transparent value chain necessary
Fundamental base of this approach – as well as of other sustainability – concepts – is (1) that it covers the whole value chain from fiber generation to the end of the textile life cycle, and (2) the transparency of the value chain. Important questions are among others
– which fiber is biodegradable
– which chemicals have been used in the production, especially in dying and finishing
– are also the accessories of confection harmless for recycling
– are detergents and other textile care chemicals harmless for health and environment.

Albin Kälin, CEO, EPEA Switzerland and Cradle-to-Cradle Expert from Switzerland says relative to industrial laundry processes: „Typical washing procedures of laundries should have good chances for optimization towards high value recycling.“  However, the textile service companies and most of the textile production companies are only in early stages relative to the target of total recycling and circular economy.

Albin Kälin, CEO, EPEA Switzerland

But there are also pioneers on various stages of the textile value chain like:
– Lenzing with Tencel in it`s various applications on the fiber level
– Lauffenmühle with infinito and reworx as fabric supplier
– Dieckhoff with it`s production line „Denken.Fühlen.Handeln“ (Think.Feel.Act) as garment supplier. The respective supply along the value chain is growing slowly.

Circular economy: support from NGO`s and Politics
In general neither the whole economy nor textile services as an industry are really prepared to go via a circular economy. This holds even more in an international perspective, and that international perspective is essential, because the textile value chain is international. But some political institutions and non governmental organizations have realized the importance of a circular economy in the face of rising exploitation of natural resources.

Already in December 2015 the EU enacted an action plan for a circular economy. Aim was to develop the currently prevailing transformation economy to a circular economy like described above.This action plan is kind of basic, and includes among others decrees about packaging waste, electronic waste and a general European regulation. The EU has started a process with this action plan, and gave also concrete targets like:

  • till 2030 65 % of urban trash shall be recycled
  • 70 % of packaging garbage shall be recycled
  • All plastc packaging should be enabled for recycling
  • Textile waste shall be collected separately form 2025 onwards etc.

Avoidance of micro-plastic
An important topic of the EU in the fight for high quality recycling is since 2018 the strategy for plastics in the circular economy. The increasing pollution of oceans and seas and the large amount of micro-plastic particles in the food chain of fish and mankind made the topic prominent. Plastic is only in the very long run degradeable and contaminates nature, animals and humans.

Textile services and micro-plastic
One of the important sources of microplastic particles are textiles made from artificial fibres like polyester. As polyester is one of the most often used materials for workwear and flat linen in textile services, textile services have a plastic problem. Even more as every laundry process yields not only cleaned linen, but also some abrasion as microparticles from polyester or other hardly degradable substances. The avoidance and substitution of polyester and other hardly degradable substances from an ecological perspective will be an important target also for textile services.

That will be a challenge to many textile service companies, because cotton/polyester-blends form a very important part of textile ranges in workwear and flat linen. Some companies like Dibella have startet to substitute polyester  with recycled polyester, however that has limits.

A large number of Initiatives and regulations aim at the reduction of harmful substances in the value chain. That is in harmony with the target of a circular economy without explicitly mentioning that. Among those are:
– REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals)  aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment through the better and earlier identification of the intrinsic properties of chemical substances. If substances involve harming hazards, their use can be restricted or totally banned. Introducing companies have to provide the relevant data.
–  The BPR (Biocidal Products Regulation) regulates the market for chemical devices against harmful organisms like pests or bacteria. Those devices need approval and obey to handling regulations like compulsory labelling.

Science and practical application often lead to updated knowledge relative to the hazards of chemicals. If they are put on the list of hazardous substances at REACH like it happened  for example with PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), this substance has to be substituted in many applications. Thus REACH and BPR are strong means to reduce harmful substances.

Non governmental initiatives
Out of the numerous non governmental initiatives we want to highlight here:
–  the Zero Discharge of Hazardious Chemicals Foundation (ZDHC), which resembles more than 80 important companies and brands like Adidas, Inditex, C&A, Gap etc. Their target is a production without harmful substances up from 2020;
– the Sustainable Apparal Coalition (SAC), which has nearly all important brands as members. SAC ist currently with roughly 200 members the largest industry organization, thriving for an ecological and socially acceptable production.Many oft he members use the Higg-Index, which has been developed with the support of SAC, to evaluate their  ecologic and social sustainability along the value chain.

These initiatives are setting milestones, which will reach out after some time also to textile services. ZDHC for example has developed a list of substances, which should not be used in production. Their Manufacturing Restricted Substance List  (MRSL) has become an important reference  in the textile chain, which has been also adopted by governmental actions like the German „Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien“ (alliance for sustainable textiles), organized by the German government. Similarly the „Bündnis“ is in talks with the SAC to use their instruments and tools to document and develop sustainable actions of alliance members.

In general all levels of the textile value chain show various opportunities and necessities to improve sustainability towards a circular economy. We pick here some areas and examples to illustrate how comprehensive and differentiated the road to sustainability and to a circular economy is.

Fibreproduction as starting point
Crucial for the ecological quality of a textile is already the fibre production deployed, because that sets already some standards of ecological quality. And you might go here even for advanced differentiations in organic cotton. Dibella for example has developed a set of standards for cotton growing and harvesting, which leads them in their buying process.

In the perspective of the circular economy concept, the biodegradeability of the fibre is of utmost importance. Natural fibres and synthetic fibres based on cellulose as well as biopolymers are here advantegeous. The development of biopolymers like Polyactid for different categories of textiles is seen as a promising option. Also Reworx from Lauffenmühle can be rotted in a controlled process and is developed for workwear and other textile product categories.

Textile chemistry as challenge
Chemical substances are used more or less at all stages of the textile production. Especially important are they among others as seize for the weaving process, in dyeing and in many processes to functionalize the fabric.
For colours the textile dyers face since years the challenge, that dyeing substances are no longer offered, often because of their risk for human health or fort he environment.

Relative to functionlization the toughest challenge currently is to find a substitute for PFOA, which is only permitted up to 2020. PFOA bears risks for the liver and for reproduction. The substance is important for medical products, outdoor textiles, and weather protective textiles, because it protects against liquids, blood, and oil. Especially for oil protection is no solution at the horizon.

Finishing and washing
In the finishing area we see currently many approaches and projects, to improve sustainability. Important ones are ecofriendly, new dyeing techniques, digital priniting, laser technologie, plasma technology and spraying.

The  laundry processes are characterized by a permanent process of resource saving: less water, less energy, less detergents, low temperature washing procedures, UV-C Technology, to name a few. Overall the washing processes has been heavily improved from an ecologica perspective. Albin Kälin, cradle-to-cradle advisor, sees good chances to optimize the industrial washing systems in the direction of a circular economy. However, currently there are no projects at textile service level known, which try optimize laundry processes with the vision to fit into an endless circular economy. „First we need to solve the problems in the textile chain“, said Kälin, „laundry technology comes next.“