"We do not trust data coming from the chemical industry”
Nov 12, 2015
15 years of Bluesign. When the company was founded in November 2000 in St. Gallen, Switzerland, it was not about developing a new eco label. What Peter Waeber, CEO of Bluesign Technologies, had in mind was a systematic change of the entire textile production. How far has he come until now?
Mr. Waeber, in your opion, what is the biggest problem of the textile production worldwide?
In my opinion, clearly, it is wasting resources - water, energy, chemistry. That is the biggest problem. And this is connected to subsequent probles like pollution, etc. One thing is clear: without changing the system, we will just bang our head against a brick wall. One does not have to be green to realise that.
Bluesign started exactly 15 years ago. Has today's textile production improved?
Overall, production methodes have not improved. In individual cases of course, but not as a whole. On the contrary: in the last few decades, almost the whole textile production in Europe has disappeared and with it we have lost the know-how too. The tragic thing is that even the chemical industry has migrated elsewhere. The textile industry passed on its pricing pressure to the chemical industry and now all the refiners, suppliers and dyers are in low-cost countries in which the EU standards - that we have developed for exactly this industry - do not apply. Textile chemistry is cheap chemistry; it does not pay for chemical companies to operate factories at European locations in this area or to even invest in more environmentally friendly production processes, alternative formulations or the conservation of resources.
Bluesign ist not the first standard and is not the only one by far. What differentiates Bluesign from others like Öko-Tex, GOTS, etc.?
Our philosophy is to manage the input, the chemistry, that goes into the production process because this is where it all starts. The wrong approach is to only look at washing the toxins out of the product later on, for example, and to dispose of them at the purification plant. It has taken its time but many have understood this by now. Thus, it cannot be about testing a product for harmlessness at the end of the production process or to certify it but it is always about optimising the entire supply chain so that fewer resources are used and to ensure at the same time that there is no negative impact on the environment. This is why we do not distinguish between the fashion industry or the sportswear industy or between natural or artificial fibres. Our standard applies for everything.
How do you monitor the chemical textile industry in low cost countries?
We do not trust data by chemical companies. By definition not. I myself was in charge of a chemical company long enough to know how it works. And to know that about 98 percent of chemical companies in Asia have no software to document the substances and processes that were used but still send safety data sheets to their clients, then one also knows that they are all fake. The tragedy is that people believe these documents. Not even Greenpeace looked through this. This is only possible when one understands the processes and checks them on site. Till date, we are the only ones who audit chemical companies and introduce environmentally friendly processes so that we can proceed with the necessary risk assessments at all at the end.
With Bluesign, you are not only promising environmental protection but also cost savings due to using fewer resources and better chemistry. This approach should be well received in the industry …
Of course, it is. There are companies that have saved costs of five million US dollars per year thanks to cooperating with us. Refiners are those who reach high amounts like this. But still we discover that many companies get stuck when improving their supply chain and ask us why that is so. Our explanation is that the necessary knowledge of how to optimise processes is missing. Most do not realise the complexity of the problems. Not Greenpeace and not the producers of the recent documentary „The true cost“. There are no simple solutions. One jacket may require 500 different chemicals - it requires an enormous amount of work to retrace each one, evaluate them and find alternatives. That is why we introduced our new tool this summer, bluesign blueXpert.
What exactly is that?
With the bluesign blueXpert, we have developed a revolutionary, web-based tool that lets our partners determine on their own how they can improve their processes. Absolutely without external consulting. BlueXpert bundles our knowledge by combining our current list of clean chemicals with relevant limits and processes according to the standard of the respective best available technology. That means with the help of blueXpert, everyone can compare their own processes with the best available technology. For this purpose, we have established a network of 80 chemical suppliers, among them the biggest in the world, who will start uploading their data from the first quarter 2016 onward. Then, manufacturers can not only determine what chemistry, what process and what machine is the best available technology for a certain product, they can also calculate the corresponding savings potential. Interesting is also that one can use this instrument to determine the impact on the environment before the actual production starts. Plus, all data is top secret and secured like a bank account.
How do you proceed when a company wants to cooperate with you?
We start with a comprehensive audit at the textile company and evaluate the chemicals used according to a three color ranking: black, grey, blue. Black means, the chemical has to go; blue means it is good. The second step is to do a screening over a whole production year to reproduce all products possible and to determine, according to the chemicals used, where there is a need for change. This may result in, for example, 30 to 50 percent of chemicals having to be changed. Only those who are ready to do that can enter a system partnership with us. The third step is about implementing all necessary adjustments for an environmentally friendly production and finding further potentials for improvement. Only then do we start with product certification. It is Important to note that it is not possible to just produce a good line - it is about the whole company.
How do you certify a brand?
A brand has to commit to converting to sustainable production. That is a must. But we know that in certain areas, there are no 100 percent solutions. We train the brands in sourcing, indicate how they can optimise their processes, create a priority matrix, etc.
How long does it take for a brand to launch its own bluesign product, for example?
In the past, this took a brand about three years - depending on the complexity of the product and how many suppliers were involved. In case of a sole t-shirt brand, it happens faster of course. Today, we generally do not need that long any more because there are already many certified supplier companies that we have access to.
Have brands bailed out in the past?
There were only two or three; the majority stayed. But that does not mean that all have already reached their goal. It takes qute a bit of time before anything changes in the textile production chain and for many, that is too long. One brand alone can not achieve much on the supplier side anyway; that is why it is better when brands cooperate to apply pressure. Because it is clear that a textile business in Asia will neither change its chemistry nor its processes. And even if they do and save money, they will not pass on this cost advantage to their customers.
Do you also work with external editors?
No, that is not possible. We have to train our auditors ourselves; we need specialists who know the processes and the chemistry used. It is not about finishing off a list as is the case with an ISO certification. All Bluesign employees also regularly undergo integrity training. In addition, every certification is checked again by a different auditor.
Why are there no 100 percent solutions?
One has to compromise. The questions is always, do I push the limits so high that only few can reach them and achieve little, in a global context? Or do I set the limits so that they are achievable for many comapnies and achieve a big impact? Only if consumer safety does not get impaired und our published limits are adhered to for production. That is the minimum. I always knew that to get anywhere, we would have to reach the big players and get to the big commodity flows.
How is it possible that Greenpeace only attacks the outdoor sector in its Detox campaign? Is the fashion industry clean?
This is not quite fair as it was the outdoor industry that pushed the whole development ahead - long before Greenpeace started its Detox campaign. Compared to the fast fashion industry, three things makes [outdoor companies] look particularly good: the use of recycling materials, e.g. recycled polyester from PET bottles; developing light-weight products that need fewer resources while their performance is the same, and of course in the area of leasing, for example leasing of sports equipment like skis, etc. And not to forget, the generally long life span of the products, which affects any life cycle analysis positively.
Keyword recycling: is this indeed the environmentally friendlier alternative to new products?
That depends. In case of recycled PET bottles - certainly. These bottles are food-standard, high-quality resources that technically could be recycled any number of times without degradation. But if polyester jackets, for example, by different manufacturers get recycled, one often does not know which substrates remain in the product. It could be that one finds highly toxics substances in the yarn then because the raw material was not clean. That is why companies like Patagonia or Japanese fabric manufacturer Teijin recycle only their own products, because they know exactly what they are made of. Regarding H&M who claims to recycle used clothing - this is clearly about getting merchandise back into the very lucrative second hand market as quickly as possible to increase their revenue further. But if one wants to recycle cotton, for example, mechanically, this is possible only one or two times without relevant degradation. Basically, in my opinion, recyclability is not key but the life span of a product. If a product lasts ten years and is used regularly, I do not have a problem if it cannot be recycled. According to the life cycle analysis, it is still the more environmentally friendly product.
In view of how difficult it is to monitor the supply chain, there have been calls on and off to bring production back to Europe. Is that a possibility at all?
Certainly not for Europe. We have already lost the entire supply chain - there are no training centres any more, which would be needed to train the specialists in textile production or textile chemistry. In case of the Americas, I can see a chance for Central and South America as production locations.
After 15 years, what is your conclusion?
First the negative one: the ignorance of the leaders in the textile industry is still high. That is why we started our business with the outdoor industry because we could count on a certain sensitivity towards the environment. Just look at the outdoor trade fairs - all advertise with pristine nature! And that is how it has worked.
My positive conclusion is: I currently see many highly motivated, mainly young people at the brand level who want to convince their suppliers to act more responsibly toward the environment. Their awareness has definitely been raised. Even the internet plays a part in that as it will bring more transparency into the supply chain and educate the consumer.
And what is your goal?
The goal has to be that Bluesign will finally be redundant because the textile industry has improved so much worldwide that the environment does not get polluted any more, that toxins have been eliminated from the entire supply chain and processes themselves conserve resources.
Written by Regina Henkel for FashionUnited DE; translated by Simone Preuss