Why a compostable bra can only be developed together
Wolford plans to launch the first products of a recyclable and compostable laundry line in autumn 2018. The lingerie manufacturer, headquartered in Bregenz, Austria, interprets recycling management strictly: the recycling process is to produce either a raw material from which stockings, panties, bras, bodysuits and underwear can be made again. Or the textiles turn into fertile compost. Andreas Röhrich, head of the development department, explains why such a project can be implemented particularly well in Vorarlberg, which hurdles still have to be overcome and why a compostable bra is particularly challenging.
Question: When you tell someone that there are many textile companies in Vorarlberg that also produce in the country, many are surprised. Why do you think that is the case?
Andreas Röhrich: Vorarlberg has a centuries-long history. Many companies have specialized very strongly. Wolford, for example, focuses on high-quality legwear and underwear. There is still a textile network in the country. For many, completely different products, the entire value chain is available in the region. For example: bras consist of 40 to 50 individual components. Everything you need for the production is available within a radius of 30 kilometres around Bregenz. A few years ago, textile companies from the Lake Constance region joined forces to form the Smart Textiles platform.
Question: Is this network helping Wolford's goal of offering recyclable and compostable underwear and stockings?
Andreas Röhrich: The idea came from an internal innovation workshop. Via the Smart Textiles platform, of which Wolford is also a member, we then discussed the subject with various other companies. You can only do something like this together. We are dependent on yarns, dyes, fasteners, threads and many other products. In order to realize an innovation of this kind, it is important to have the entire value chain close at hand. That is the case with us. When the parties involved are scattered all over the globe, it will be difficult. A consortium of twelve companies is now working on the project. It is controlled by Wolford's product development department.
Question: What is the current state of the environmental balance of textiles, especially lingerie?
Andreas Röhrich: Wolford processes 85 to 90 percent synthetic oil-based fibers for its products. This raw material does not grow back. Because textiles almost always consist of a mixture of different materials, they usually also end up in residual waste. Even a shirt made of 100 percent cotton is made of many different materials. Think of the buttons, the seams and also the collar are made of other materials. This mix makes recycling complex. In any case, Wolford has set itself the goal of improving its own environmental balance sheet. We came across the Cradle to Cradle® concept.
Questions: What does Cradle to Cradle® mean?
Andreas Röhrich: Cradle to Cradle® means designing products so that they do not generate waste and have no negative impact on the environment. To realize Cradle to Cradle®, there are now two possibilities: We can recycle the product into the biological cycle. So that it rots without residue under industrial conditions. The other way is a technical cycle. At the end of the service life of the textiles, the polymer is broken down into monomers. These can then be used to produce new polymers. In short: In the technical cycle, you get exactly the same fiber from the old product that you used to produce it.
Questions: Does this make laundry as recyclable as PET bottles?
Andreas Röhrich: No. This is not a recycling cycle as we know it from plastic bottles. These are collected and burned to 80 percent. This also has a benefit because it serves to generate heat. When PET bottles are recycled, however, raw materials are used that are no longer available. This is not the case with the Cradle to Cradle® concept. In our case, either high-quality humus or raw material is available at the end, from which you can produce the same product again.
Questions: There is already a sports shoe for which plastic waste from the sea serves as a raw material. Stockings made from disused fishing nets are also available. How did these concepts differ from yours?
Andreas Röhrich: Both of the products you mentioned are residual waste again at the end of their lives. This should not be the case with our textiles. Either you get high-quality humus as a result or the raw material for yarns from which you can make laundry again.
Questions: When will you launch products that work according to the Cradle to Cradle® cycle model?
Andreas Röhrich: We have been working on this project for three years now and have already completed the first prototypes of tights, panties and bras. We will launch an entire laundry line. In autumn/winter 2018 we want to be able to offer the first tights. A small collection of pantyhose, knee socks, body, panties and bra is planned for summer 2019. Our vision is to convert half of our production to environmental services within ten years. However, we do not allow any compromises in terms of fit, durability or design. In any case, we do not want to offer organic products that itch and scratch. Textiles produced in the environmental service branch must also have all the features for which Wolford is known.
Questions: Are there still hurdles to overcome, or is everything already on track?
Andreas Röhrich: There are still open questions. Like how we get our products back when they are no longer in use. Our customers need to know which textiles they can return at the end of their life cycle. Returning laundry is also a bit more delicate than returning used glass or PET bottles. In order to clarify this question, we have conducted a survey among our customers together with the University of Applied Sciences Vorarlberg. We have received 3,000 responses. Approximately 80 percent said they were "safe" or at least "likely" to return laundry. This pleasing result has strengthened our decision.
Questions: Technically everything has already been clarified?
Andreas Röhrich: Composting is still taking too long at the moment. In Austria, composting of clothing is not permitted. Simply because it doesn't work. However, studies are currently being carried out to prove that this can be done industrially. It is therefore also necessary for the legislator to rethink the situation.
Questions: Will Wolford customers then be able to simply throw their underwear onto their own compost heap and extract garden soil from it?
Andreas Röhrich: No. The process does not work on the compost heap in your own garden. At the current stage of development, you need 60 degrees of heat to make the material rot. However, you will not reach such a temperature on your compost heap behind the house. This process must be industrial. We tested the composting together with a regional waste recycler and it worked.
Questions: A total of 12 companies are involved in the project. Does Wolford always work with so many partners when it comes to innovation?
Andreas Röhrich: No. For us, a project of this size is also a first. We have cooperated with other companies in developing innovations in the past. For example, when special machines or special yarns are required to create something new.
Question: What impact will the recyclable and compostable laundry line have on the industry?
Andreas Röhrich: We as Wolford cannot change the world. We use about 400 tons of yarn per year. Worldwide, this quantity is negligibly small. However, we assume that others will also rely on this closed-loop model. Once the concept has been implemented, the production costs are not significantly higher than before. The textiles will not cost three times as much. That is why we believe that the way of doing business can change within the next 10 years.
Question: One last question: Why is a compostable bra the focus of this project?
Andreas Röhrich: The bra is pretty much the most complex textile product. As mentioned above, it consists of 40 to 50 individual parts. For the production 20 to 25 semi-finished products are necessary. If we succeed in making a bra compostable, we can also convert all the other parts of our range. In addition, the product generates media attention. The question "What makes my bra in a salad?
Thank you for the interview!
Andreas Röhrich is Director Product Development/Textile Sourcing at Wolford AG. Headquartered in Bregenz, Germany, the company employs approximately 1570 people and sells its products in 60 different countries.
Founded in 1950, the company produces tights, bodysuits and underwear as well as ladies' outerwear and accessories in the top price segment.
Born in the Salzkammergut. After working for Shell and Porsche, he concentrated on innovation management as a study assistant at the Innovation Department of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. In 2003 he founded LEAD Innovation and manages the company as Managing Partner. Lectures at MIT, in front of companies like Google or NASA.