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A post Corona outlook for textiles: six ideas

Production outages, closed shops, collapsed delivery chains and sales losses in the billions – Corona threatens to tear the textile industry to shreds like a shirt in recycling. Yet one of the most ancient industries has already survived many crises – and always taken up the threads again. How the same thing can be done successfully this time, too – that is something about which Kai Nebel, an expert in textile process technology at Reutlingen Polytechnic, has a few ideas.

1. More slow fashion than fast fashion.

Above all, textile producers and high-street retailers, with their often small owner-managed businesses, are suffering massively from the impact of the Corona virus. Goods were manufactured, ordered and paid for, which cannot be sold. Orders worth billions to producers in Asia have been cancelled. The shops have been closed for weeks, and when they open again it will be too warm outside for transitional clothing.

But if the industry is honest with itself: the Corona virus is acting here more like a magnifying glass for one of the biggest challenges in any case. For years more has been constantly produced than has been sold. There are estimates according to which up to 40 percent of a seasonal collection is not disposed of – and now there are up to 24 collections a year. The Corona virus could encourage the start of a decelerated production, could take the short-termism out of the system, and at the same time reduce transport and logistics costs.

Kai Nebel researches, teaches and advises companies in the fields of sustainability, recycling, recycling management, product development and re-growable raw materials / Source: Reutlingen Polytechnic

Kai Nebel researches, teaches and advises companies in the fields of sustainability, recycling, circular economy, product development and re-growable raw materials / Source: Reutlingen Polytechnic

Both big and small players in the industry are finding, in an extreme way, that they are all in the same boat; many are in water up to the neck, some only up to the knees – but they are all getting wet. Cooperation and solidarity will help to combat cannibalism in the industry. The retail trade, for instance, could resist the temptation to counter its losses through discount battles. The domino effect has also depressed prices for producers and suppliers who are likewise hard hit by the crisis. If the insight prevails long-term that you do not have to undercut each other all the time, that would be an enormous gain.

2. It is in the hands of the consumers.

Industry and the retail trade are only one side of the coin, however; the other is the behaviour of consumers. At the moment their (purchasing) routines have been shattered. For the customer, this crisis is also a time to take stock. What is really important? Does my quality of life get worse if I buy fewer clothes? A good moment to think seriously about “less is sexy” and bargain hunting. According to a Greenpeace study from 2015, an incredible 5.2 billion items of clothing are hanging in German wardrobes alone, and 2-3 billion of them are only worn once or twice, or not at all. Wardrobe doors are truly wide, wide open for changes – it could be the start of a real sustainability revolution.

If this is to happen, however, there need to be more incentives in support of fairer value addition and the purchase of sustainable clothing, for example a greater availability in conventional retailing, return or bonus models, and more information and communication about such subjects. Where does my T-shirt actually come from, what is in it, who made it, and under what conditions? And more should be revealed about the conditions of textile production, not only in the media, but in institutes of higher education, in businesses, in kindergartens and schools.

3. An opportunity for more regionalism: the delivery chains (re)activated during the crisis in Germany and Europe can also be used in post-Corona times.

Chancellor Merkel said recently that a certain self-reliance in the local production of personal protective clothing and face masks in Germany and Europe was a lesson by experience from the pandemic. That many fashion and textile firms are switching to the production of respiratory protection accessories, mouth and nose masks, shows that (re)expansion of a textile infrastructure based here is possible.

I have no doubt: the reactivated and relinked delivery chains will be robust and flexible enough to function in future, too. And on machinery which has been procured to help out in the crisis it could be possible to produce T-shirts, jeans and blazers at local levels in the future. Of course there will be mighty challenges along the way: local primary production, whether spinning, weaving, finishing or garment making, would not be competitive on the world market at the moment. But structures can be established so that home manufacture is equally worthwhile for producers, retailers and consumers.

According to textile engineer Kai Nebel, the textile industry should do more to encourage new recruits. Especially in the field of technical textiles, people are now "high-tech" – "Show that to the intending trainees!" says Nebel / Source: Gustavo Fring on Pexels

According to textile engineer Kai Nebel, the textile industry should do more to encourage new recruits. Especially in the field of technical textiles, people are now “high-tech” – “Show that to the intending trainees!” says Nebel / Source: Gustavo Fring on Pexels

With this in mind, jobs in the textile industry should enjoy a new value, just as in the retail trade and in the health and care sectors. By shifting production to Asia, work in textiles has lost its attraction. The textile industry should show itself much more self-confident here and do more to encourage new recruits. In the field of technical textiles in particular it is nowadays a high-tech industry, which does not need to hide in the shade of the automotive, IT and mechanical-engineering sectors – show that to intending trainees!

4. Creating a new outlook through modern production methods and new business models. And: don’t be afraid of digitalisation!

Nowadays, there are plenty of exciting approaches to a modern and more sustainable production, from the use of natural materials, to highly effective chemical-fibre production, to environmentally friendly finishing processes. And that gives me another idea: recyclable materials, produced with clean technology by fairly paid people, transparent in processing and delivery, sold at sensible prices. Sounds utopian? It isn’t. Many German and European manufacturers are already very sustainable-minded, for they are subject to strict environmental regulations; standard wages and job-protection legislation are an integral part of contemporary thinking. And digitalisation can significantly improve the efficacy of resources and the recycling economy.

But ultimately, when it comes to local production, it is a question of mass flows and prices. So the industry should be on the lookout for new business models. Germany and Europe offer for this purpose an efficient research and development landscape, including preparatory research for digital production methods and new concepts. And we should increasingly reach out to user industries, such as aerospace, the automotive sector and clothing, for interdisciplinary usage research.

5. The textile industry could become the world’s pioneering industry in sustainability.

There can be no question about it: much is already on the move in terms of sustainability. Small fashion labels are producing fair and ecologically high-value clothing in ever greater unit quantities. Even the big groups are responding to the trend, are taking worn clothes back, in order (they say) to recycle them, or are increasingly offering “sustainable” fashion. But that is not enough. On the one hand, anyone making major profits with non-sustainable clothing while making a few concessions to sustainability for publicity purposes is encouraging a rebound effect. In other words, if companies pretend to be more sustainable-minded than they really are, customers will also buy more non-sustainable goods with a clear conscience. But instead of putting money into “green marketing”, it ought in future to be channelled into a genuine green revolution.

Scarcely any consumer can find his or her way anymore through the jungle of sustainability seals – even I, as an expert, find it difficult. Why not create transparency directly on the labels, showing how and where the clothing was made, traceable via apps? Why not let seals such as the “Green Button” fade away in the face of the industry’s own sustainability successes, which significantly outstrip the requirements of the government seal of quality? Issuing vouchers and taking back old clothes are nice gestures for promoting customer loyalty and sales, but must a piece of clothing really travel 30,000 kilometres just to end up, unworn, in the old clothes sack in Bangladesh again?

That sustainability and compliance with ethical standards are really highly attractive in economic terms is shown by investors’ behaviour: they are putting increasing pressure on companies to comply with ethical and ecological standards. Why? Because the demand for sustainable products and fair production is increasing and because that is where the business models of the future lie.

6. Can the government create more incentives for sustainable, local and fair textile manufacture? It certainly can!

Firms producing regionally can be given tax breaks or improved terms of credit. Public procurement can also be made more sustainable. Tax the import and export of sustainable products more favourably or introduce subventions for ecological products. Moreover, the government could call for greater transparency in supply channels. It could also sanction breaches of environmental standards abroad and require both proof of origin and proof of fair working conditions. Customs duties and transport charges would be further taxation tools. The government just needs the will to do it.

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