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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2002 : Eco-Intelligence

Eco-Intelligence

Transforming the Textile Industry
Victor Innovatex, eco-intelligent polyester and the next industrial revolution.


By William Mcdonough and
Michael Braungart


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 world’s 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 industry’s material flows affect nearly everyone: From the vast appetite of its supply chain—including one-third of the production of the chemical industry—to a distribution network that spans the world, textiles are quite literally woven into the fabric of life. It’s an industry crucial to the human prospect and in dire need of innovation.

“When 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 grandfather’s 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 market—a 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 Victor’s heritage as a lean manufacturer to an increasingly strong interest in new technologies and environmental responsibility, Duval staked the company’s 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 fabric—a 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 world’s 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 bumps—a 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.

Here’s 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. It’s 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 Victor’s energetic cultivation of the contract furniture market, led to extraordinary growth for the company.

Victor’s 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 Victor’s 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 Victor’s 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 Victor’s leadership, developing an innovative polyester designed to maintain high value through many product life-cycles—a source of food for industrial systems—felt 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 gel’s 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 Victor’s designers and engineers and have become part of an ongoing design process geared to producing fabrics with wholly positive impacts on human and environmental health.

From Performance to Partnerships

We sometimes call Eco-Intelligent Polyester “the polyester environmentalists can love.” But it’s also a polyester Victor’s 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 styles.

While designers love the aesthetic values, Victor’s 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 customers—furniture manufacturers such as Steelcase, as well as textile distributors Designtex, Carnegie and C.F. Stinson—for cutting edge solutions to environmental problems.

Eco-Intelligent Polyester might be of only passing interest if it were Victor’s lone environmentally safe product. But the company’s 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; Victor’s 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 Victor’s vision.

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.

It’s 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 we’re 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? Wouldn’t it be fitting and delightful if the constructive, 25-year discussion of environmental issues birthed by Rachel Carson’s 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, let’s build on today’s 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.


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