|The North American
textile industry is taking a beating. In 2001 alone, nearly
67,000 textile workers in the United States lost their jobs.
Industry giants such as Burlington and Guilford Mills filed
for bankruptcy, while more than 100 U.S. and Canadian plants
shut down. As the value of Asian currency continued its freefall,
U.S. textile exports dropped for the sixth straight year, and
industry leaders pleaded with Congress to help slow the wave
of cheap apparel flooding the market.
Worldwide, textile producers face other challenges. The industry
that launched the Industrial Revolution has long illustrated some
of its most notorious design failures. About one-half of the worlds
wastewater problems are linked to the production of textile goods,
and many of the chemicals used to dye and finish fabrics are known
to harm human health. Often, the clippings from carpet or fabric
mills are so loaded with dangerous chemicals they are handled like
toxic waste, while the products made from these materials are considered
safe for use in the home.
The crisis in the textile industry reverberates widely. More than
32 million people worldwide work in clothing manufacturing plants.
Millions more work in mills producing the fabrics that surround
us, such as seating, drapes and carpeting. In short, the industrys
material flows affect nearly everyone: From the vast appetite of
its supply chainincluding one-third of the production of the
chemical industryto a distribution network that spans the
world, textiles are quite literally woven into the fabric of life.
Its an industry crucial to the human prospect and in dire
need of innovation.
you eliminate the concept of waste you
eliminate all the problems associated with conventional
industrial production, For us, the idea that
waste equals food just makes sense.
Janelle Henderson, Victor Innovatex
This is not news to Alain Duval, president of Victor Innovatex,
a family-owned and -run contract fabric producer headquartered in
Saint-Georges, Quebec, Canada. Duval has been working in the textile
industry since he was a boy, when he sorted wool for recycling in
his grandfathers mill. Upon assuming leadership of the company
from his father in the early 1980s, Duval saw that Victor would
not survive if it continued to produce woolen goods for the commodities
marketa market in which it would always be undersold by manufacturers
in countries with a steady supply of low cost labor. Instead, Duval
focused the company on manufacturing high quality fabrics for the
contract furniture market. Melding Victors heritage as a lean
manufacturer to an increasingly strong interest in new technologies
and environmental responsibility, Duval staked the companys
future on an ethic of innovation within a well-defined market niche.
His bet paid off. Victor has not only survived the economic crisis
in the textile industry, it has flourished, continuing to prosper
while becoming a recognized industry leader in ecologically sound
design. In 2001, Victor introduced Eco-Intelligent Polyester,
the first polyester produced and dyed with all environmentally safe
ingredients, including a new catalyst that replaces the heavy metal
antimony, a known carcinogen. Developed in partnership with McDonough
Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and its German sister company
EPEA, Eco-Intelligent Polyester is designed to be safely recycled
into new fabric at the end of its life, with none of the hazardous
by-products of traditional polyester recycling. It is a truly revolutionary
fabrica healthy alternative for the textile trade and a signal
of hope for human industry.
Polyester and the Future of Recycling
This breakthrough in polymer design could have an enormous impact
on the textile industry. Polyester is a key synthetic fiber. Its
high performance and durability make it the worlds most popular
polymer. Roughly 11 million tons of polyester are produced each
year, one-half of the total annual production of all synthetic fibers.
Polyester is also recyclable. In fact, polyester recycling is so
common, and so widely perceived as environmentally sound, it is
now de rigeur for fabric manufacturers to carry a recycled polyester
product. Industry also uses reclaimed polyester for fuel, as do
the poor in many Third World countries.
Unfortunately, traditionally produced and recycled polyester is
far from optimal. Most polyester is manufactured using antimony
as a catalyst. Along with being a carcinogen, antimony is toxic
to the heart, lungs, liver and skin. Long-term inhalation of antimony
trioxide, a by-product of polymer production, can cause chronic
bronchitis and emphysema. Other by-products include mill wastewater
tainted with antimony trioxide, which leaches from polyester fibers
during the high-temperature dye process. Recycling polyester, another
high-temperature process, creates the same wastewater problems;
burning it releases antimony trioxide into the air. Indeed, the
conventional manufacture of polyester is so riddled with harmful
chemicals a recycling strategy that does not redesign the whole
process could not hope to do anything but recapitulate toxic events.
Current recycling practices for nearly all materials tend to be
high-tech waste management strategies for low quality products.
Rather than regaining valuable materials for perpetual reuse in
high quality goods, much recycling is actually downcycling, a reduction
in the value of material over time. The recycling of plastics, for
example, often mixes different polymers to produce a hybrid of lower
quality, which is then used to produce something amorphous and cheap,
such as speed bumpsa spiraling loss of value that ultimately
ends in the landfill. And, as we have seen, recycling of this kind
is often a toxic process.
Eco-Intelligent Polyester changes the story. By starting the design
process at the molecular level, MBDC and EPEA were able to analyze
every ingredient in polyester and choose dyestuffs, auxiliary chemicals
and a catalyst that are safe and environmentally sound. This creates
the opportunity to transform recycling from a costly waste management
strategy into a system that eliminates the concept of waste.
Heres how: When product design begins with the selection of
healthful ingredients, materials such as Eco-Intelligent Polyester
can be safely and perpetually used, reclaimed and reused in high
quality products. In fact, closing the loop on material flows in
this way only makes sense if the material is designed to be ecologically
safe. Otherwise, the closed loop cycles become contaminated with
toxic chemicals, triggering health concerns and a downward spiral
in value. But when design begins at the molecular level, synthetic
products can be conceived as technical nutrients, which are materials
specifically designed to feed, or be returned to, industrial
systems without any harmful effects. Materials made from natural
ingredients can be designed as biological nutrients, which can be
safely returned to the earth. From this perspective, industrial
waste is no longer problematic. Instead, waste equals food. Products
designed as food, or nutrients, for technical and biological systems
are the future of effective recycling.
An Energetic Industry Leader
Eco-Intelligent Polyester is the first textile designed as a technical
nutrient. Its no surprise it emerged from Victor Innovatex.
Victor is a small company with a tradition of quality manufacturing,
sound environmental management and strong, collaborative relationships
with its customers. During the 1990s it incorporated new spinning
and high speed weaving technologies, a responsive product development
process and customer service goals all targeted toward becoming
a leaner, faster, more efficient company. These innovations, paired
with Victors energetic cultivation of the contract furniture
market, led to extraordinary growth for the company.
Victors goal, however, was not to grow big but
to work closely with its clients to do big things. The
opportunity to do a truly extraordinary thing came in 1999, when
one of Victors customers, Susan Lyons of Designtex, approached
the company about developing with MBDC and EPEA an ecologically
intelligent synthetic textile, a technical nutrient. Here was an
opportunity to further differentiate the company within its market
niche while developing a stronger partnership with one of its key
clients. It was also a chance, said Victors marketing manager,
Janelle Henderson, to do the next great thing.
We are very good at being lean, she said. We raised
the bar on lean manufacturing. We raised the bar on quality and
consistency. But the time had come to take the next step.
For Henderson, and for Victors leadership, developing an innovative
polyester designed to maintain high value through many product life-cyclesa
source of food for industrial systemsfelt like a sensible
leap. When you eliminate the concept of waste you eliminate
all the problems associated with conventional industrial production,
she said. For us, the idea that waste equals food
just makes sense.
So Victor took the next step, engaging MBDC and EPEA in the design
of its new polyester. The firms began by identifying an environmentally
sound catalyst to replace antimony. They had been seeking a new
polymer catalyst since discovering during the design process of
a new shower gel that antimony was leaching from the gels
plastic packaging into the product itself. By the time their work
with Victor began, they knew of effective alternatives and specified
for Eco-Intelligent Polyester a titanium- and silica-based catalyst
with no toxic effects.
Next, MBDC and EPEA analyzed all the dyes and auxiliaries Victor
used in the manufacture of polyester, trimming a list of 57 chemicals
to 15. Of those, several were replaced with more environmentally
sound chemicals, polishing off a new, totally safe palette. The
chemical assessment and material evaluation guidelines of the MBDC
Protocol are now being used by Victors designers and engineers
and have become part of an ongoing design process geared to producing
fabrics with wholly positive impacts on human and environmental
From Performance to Partnerships
We sometimes call Eco-Intelligent Polyester the polyester
environmentalists can love. But its also a polyester
Victors designers, engineers, sales people and executives
can appreciate. Along with being optimized for environmental safety,
Eco-Intelligent Polyester offers all the performance benefits of
conventional polyester. There are no limitations on color choice
and it can be woven in any jacquard pattern in a great variety of
While designers love the aesthetic values, Victors executives
think Eco-Intelligent Polyester simply makes good business sense.
Developing the new fabric, said Duval was perfectly in line
with our lean thinking philosophy, yet it was even more
advanced. The new protocol, he said, extended thoughtful consideration
of materials throughout the design process, from sources in the
supply chain to the impact on the earth of every aspect of
the product and the manufacturing process. As a result, Victor
has been able to satisfy the needs of its customersfurniture
manufacturers such as Steelcase, as well as textile distributors
Designtex, Carnegie and C.F. Stinsonfor cutting edge solutions
to environmental problems.
Eco-Intelligent Polyester might be of only passing interest if it
were Victors lone environmentally safe product. But the companys
leadership has taken bold steps to fulfill the promise of their
new fabric, launching a series of initiatives to integrate ecologically
intelligent design at every level of the business. Engineers are
applying the MBDC Protocol to product design; Victors facilities
are increasingly using energy from renewable sources; marketing
efforts are built on communicating the benefits of products that
go beyond waste reduction to benefit the environment at all phases
of their life cycle; and strategic efforts throughout the company
are building partnerships with other businesses that share Victors
Together, these efforts add up to a product development process
Victor calls its Eco-Intelligence Initiatives (EII). As sales and
marketing director Jean Francois Gagnon said, product development
is not just about the product.
Yes, Eco-Intelligent Polyester is a wonderful fabric,
he said. But in designing and producing new fabrics we also
want our manufacturing process to meet the highest environmental
standards, we want to tap into the knowledge and passion of our
designers and engineers, and we want to develop partnerships with
like-minded companies. The environmental agenda has to be shared.
Thus far the partnerships that support the expanding EII product
line have yielded Eco-Intelligent Polyester and Climatex® LifeguardFR,
a fabric woven of organically-grown, compostable fibers. While the
new polyester is a technical nutrient, Climatex LifeguardFR, produced
in collaboration with the Swiss textile mill, Rohner, is a biological
nutrient designed to safely return to the earth after use. This
pair of new fabrics makes Victor the first company ever to produce
and market both a biological and technical nutrient, a landmark
in ecologically intelligent design.
As Gagnon makes clear, Victor could not have achieved this pioneering
role alone. Victor cannot sustain it alone either. By developing
environmentally sound fabrics it has taken the first, crucial step
toward safely closing the loop on the flow of industrial materials.
Building a system for the reclamation of those materials is a challenge
for the entire industry.
Its a challenge some are accepting. Textile makers, fabric
distributors, and furniture manufacturers have already begun to
come together to explore the design of a take-back program for textile
recycling. Though some in the U.S. textile industry dismiss the
idea, we see hopeful precedents. The automotive industry, for example,
has begun to appreciate the economic benefits of reusing valuable
materials and is already moving toward implementing take-back programs.
In Europe, the reclamation of automotive materials is the law. As
other industries follow suit, companies such as Victor will be perfectly
positioned to offer value-added materials designed for safe reclamation
and re-use. A further step could include making polyester from renewable
resources, transforming it into a fully biodegradable material that
flows in biological cycles.
What were talking about here is nothing less than The Next
Industrial Revolution. Can textile manufacturers, with their enormous
influence on the world economy, recover from their current woes
to lead this transformation of human industry? We think Victor Innovatex
is showing how they might. Clearly, North American apparel makers
are in for an uphill battle as they compete with inexpensive imports
in the commodities market. But if restructuring is the order of
the day, why not reshape the textile industry following the lead
of successful companies, such as Victor and Rohner, which are creating
economic value with innovation, intelligence and good design? Wouldnt
it be fitting and delightful if the constructive, 25-year discussion
of environmental issues birthed by Rachel Carsons Silent Spring
were directed by business leaders toward product quality? Imagine
the textile industry renewed by the insights of ecology. Imagine
industrialized nations projecting their strength through the export
of life-affirming products that bring economic, social and ecological
value to the entire world. Instead of a legacy of toxic materials,
low wages and ecological destruction, lets build on todays
innovations and create a legacy of nutritious materials, prosperity
and health for all species.
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart
are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy
that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective
design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.