It was a long road to the Aurora collection: About 15 years ago, Andreas Röhrich, Global Director R&D and Sustainability at Wolford, began researching sustainable production methods for the high-quality skinwear range from Austria. Together with 15 partners, including suppliers and technical universities, they set out to explore the Cradle to Cradle® design principle for Wolford products. They found that there are two ways to follow a consistent circular economy approach: When biological nutrients return to organic cycles or technical substances are continuously kept in the production cycle.
The biological approach is already part of Röhrich’s workplace: “I have a large glass vase with soil in my office,” he says. “If you look closely, you can see the remains of a T-shirt from our Aurora collection, which is gradually being broken down.” The secret: fibers and yarns with a modified chemical structure that doesn’t release harmful substances into the environment. With the creation of the first products that met both Wolford’s high-quality standards, and the strict guidelines for Cradle to Cradle certification, Wolford became, in 2019, the first and only clothing company worldwide to be certified with the gold standard for both biological and technical cycles.
From fishing net to sheer tights
“For the technical Cradle to Cradle products, we use Econyl, a polyamide fiber obtained from fishing nets in the oceans and other nylon waste,” reports Röhrich.
“The fiber is made by depolymerization, a process in which the chains of the polymer are broken down into their individual parts – so-called monomers. Then they are put together into a new fiber. This process can be repeated indefinitely.” Depending on the cycle for which a product was manufactured – organic or technical – it should, over time, either be biodegraded or transformed into a new product.
It is the small details that make the new production methods so challenging: “For example, we had to change the oil on the knitting machine to keep the material healthy,” says Röhrich. “For certification, every section of the product cycle must be sustainable: from the wastewater that is free of toxins and the use of renewable energy in the production, to the guarantee that materials can be recycled.” And it is exactly here that the devil is in the details: “Using toxic-free dyes at Wolford doesn’t necessarily change the production itself, but the development of the dye in advance and the transformation processes do become more complex and expensive. We, therefore, wish that as many companies as possible, including the smaller ones that cannot afford this research, benefit from our knowledge. We are happy to pass on our know-how.”
Code words: Cooperation and transparency
In addition to developing a total of 15 gold-certified products, avoiding transport routes has priority: “The most distant component of our Aurora collection is a yarn that comes from Cologne,” explains Röhrich. “Our products, on the other hand, are sewn by a company in Slovenia.” But how do you communicate these measures to consumers? Almost everyone seems to value sustainability, but why the Aurora line is slightly more expensive than the other collections is not that easy to convey, as the Wolford marketing department reports. Nevertheless, Röhrich has high goals: by 2025, 50 percent of all products should be produced sustainably.
That is why Wolford focuses on transparency with a 3D code on the products: If this is scanned, the ingredients and their origin can be traced. It is also important to develop a concept for the future of how the return of used products and the labeling of new products could work in the future.
I am convinced that the origin and harmlessness of the raw materials in products are becoming increasingly important for consumers too. Transparency in the supply chain is, therefore, also an important keyword for the company’s success.
Global Director R&D and Sustainability, Wolford