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The Rupp Report: Sustainability: A Road To Success Or Failure?

Currently, sustainability is a word that is used pervasively. Many organizations, mainly nongovernmental organizations, are chanting the mantra that every textile piece should be produced under strict interpretations of sustainability. There is no doubt that humankind has to care for the environment. And there is no doubt, too, that all nations must handle their precious resources with care.

A Long And Winding Road
Many companies in the textile business, mainly retailers with a global presence, have taken the sustainable trail, with different kinds of difficulties. Some have gone very far; and expressions like "lifecycle analysis," "carbon footprint" or even "from cradle to grave" have become more prominent when talking about the world of textile production. Suppliers have to carry information about the source and production methods of their garments, and, of course, the applied chemicals and dyestuffs they use.

Currently — and it was very obvious at the recent International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) conference in Interlaken, Switzerland — countless labels are in circulation and appear as hang tags on garments around the globe. It would go beyond the scope of this report to name all the labels appearing on the markets, but 50 is not a high-enough number. Some are dealing with the environment; some are dealing with the social wellbeing of the workers too, and ... and ... and. But where is the way to a feasible production process, taking most of the aspects of sustainability into consideration?

One way, with some surprising results, was presented during the latest Narrow Fabrics Conference in Frick, Switzerland. For 12 years, the Jakob Müller Institute of Narrow Fabrics, a subsidiary of the Jakob Müller Group, the Swiss producer of machinery and equipment for narrow fabrics and labels, has been organizing the Narrow Fabrics Conference. For one day, on September 8, the summit of the global narrow fabrics community took place in Frick.

A Road To Success?
Also at this conference, sustainability was somewhat in the focus. Among other presentations was one by Bernd Dannhorn of Triumph International AG, Germany, a leading producer of underwear, swimwear and homewear. Dannhorn opened his presentation by saying, "Triumph is fully aware of the need to produce only such goods that comply with the most stringent user safety requirements." Safety requirements mean taking all aspects of sustainability and environmental consciousness into consideration.

For a manufacturer of products that are worn directly on the body, it is of outmost importance to produce only "clean" articles. After the decision of the top management, Triumph decided to start a campaign titled "Maximum Safety for Consumers" from 1995 to 1997 with the reputable Institute of Textile Technology and Process Engineering (ITV) in Denkendorf, Germany. First of all, a holistic view with a restricted substances list (RSL) was established to reach the Oeko-Tex® Standard 100. "We were absolutely convinced," Dannhorn said, "that this would be the road to success." The company started global communications among its suppliers, the company itself, the trade and the consumers. And now the Oeko-Tex standard has been "mutually advantageous for 20 years," Dannhorn declared. But what about the future if almost everybody has this label today? How does one distinguish its products from those of its competitors?

Yes, But
In very open words, Dannhorn explained that Triumph wanted to go much further. Therefore, the cradle-to-cradle philosophy and the Oeko-Tex Standard 1000 were pursued. "From product to production" was the internal slogan. In cooperation with other companies, a collection of lingerie, made of 80-percent organic cotton and 20 percent biodegradable elastane (spandex) was produced and put on the market. The result was devastating, he explained: It was a total flop. The whole production was virtually unsold and remained in the shelves.

Why this failure, the people involved asked themselves? Was it maybe because the market was not yet ready for acceptance? Maybe because of misleading communication? Did we understand the cradle-to-cradle concept? How about the market acceptance? And what is the future strategy? However, Triumph did not give up and started the next project. A risk management assessment was undertaken with the chemical industry, an audit with the textile industry — and brand protection for the producer and retailer.

Öko-Tex 1000: A Possible Solution
This standard was achieved. Triumph says that Oeko-Tex 1000 is "good for the world and our children." It takes into consideration the following issues:

  • energy
  • child labor
  • carbon dioxide
  • dyes
  • emissions
  • production material
  • effluents
  • exhaust air
  • chemicals
  • water
  • health and safety at work
  • social criteria
  • alkyl phenol ethoxylates: In Europe these emulsifiers/surfactants are no longer allowed or wanted.

Public relations start at home, as everybody in the communication business knows. So Triumph started its Triumph International Vendor Information (TIVI) activities. Oeko-Tex 1000 is okay, said Dannhorn, but this can't be the end of the road, so they tried to "think crazy, but economical." And they still do. The last chapter of this story is not yet written.

Come Together
No doubt, there is great demand for sustainable and traceable products. Dannhorn mentioned that "every piece must be traceable to build up and maintain credibility and confidence." Therefore," he emphasized, "all activities must be considered in a team along the production chain and not as a stand-alone project."

To be on a successful road, one has to build up credibility and confidence for the company and its products, and this is only achievable if all production steps are working hand-in-hand. However, Dannhorn argued, today there is still no comprehensive label and standards that are applicable for all markets. To find the right standards could and should be the job of the national associations from the different sectors. They can bring the right people together to establish valuable and trustful global standards for everybody. This would be for the benefit of producer and customer. For one, the manufacturers can rely on sound standards, and the customer doesn't need a manual to read and understand the whole great quantity of hangtags attached to his new buy. Less could be more.

November 6, 2012