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Survival Tactics

Eco-effective design strategies for cost-effective products can help textile manufacturers compete in today's marketplace.

Janet Bealer Rodie, Assistant Editor

" T oday's industrial infrastructure is designed to chase economic growth. It does so at the expense of other vital concerns, particularly human and ecological health, cultural and natural richness, and even enjoyment and delight.... The waste, pollution, crude products, and other negative effects [of most industrial methods and materials] are the consequence of outdated and unintelligent design."

So state architect and designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, Ph.D., in their book "Cradle to Cradle," in which they champion the importance of design in developing environmentally intelligent, sustainable products and business strategies, looking to the natural world to find practical approaches to reaching that goal.

Their strategies offer hope to companies that struggle to comply with government regulations, helping them realize the economic growth they seek, in addition to providing product differentiation. Manufacturers are surviving in today's challenging and fiercely competitive global business environment because they have reduced costs related to energy, waste disposal and regulatory compliance. And their products are competing in the marketplace quality-for-quality on price, performance and aesthetic appeal as well.

Origami broadloom carpet, made using BASF SAVANT™ nylon 6 yarn, from Patcraft Commercial Carpet Division of Shaw Industries

Cradle To Cradle

"Sustainability is a destination, which is called cradle to cradle," McDonough told Textile World in a recent interview. Through Charlottesville, Va.-based McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), McDonough and Braungart have consulted with corporations worldwide, including such textile manufacturers and suppliers as Cargill Dow LLC, BASF Corp., Shaw Industries Inc., Rohner Textil AG and others - helping them chart a new course by reevaluating their operations and setting goals to implement eco-effective, and even restorative, practices. These companies are turning "strategies of tragedy" into "strategies of change," redesigning products to use more eco-friendly chemicals and processes, eliminate much of their pollution and waste, and also provide food for future manufacturing appetites and for the earth.

McDonough and Braungart contrast the cradle-to-cradle, regenerative life cycle of sustainable products with the cradle-to-grave concept of products whose components cannot be separated and perpetually recycled into virgin-quality materials and ultimately end up as waste. But even the idea of waste must be reevaluated in this context. In a cradle-to-cradle cycle, "waste equals food," McDonough and Braungart assert. It provides nutrition in a biological, compostable cycle or in a closed-loop, technical, manufacturing cycle.

Victor Innovatex’s environmentally optimized Eco Intelligent™ Polyester upholstery fabric

Biological Or Technical Nutrition

"On the biological nutrient side, we have propitious, biological, organic products, and that means we have to go right back to their origin and their processing," McDonough said. "We also have biodegradable materials made from petroleum products. What's exciting will be biological nutrient fibers made from secondary agricultural products - PLA [polylactide], for example, made from straws and stalks, not from kernels. Otherwise, we're making our fabrics out of food.

"As for petrochemical-based materials, we see them going either into biologically based products that break down into carbohydrate or into technical services products, like polyesters and nylons," he said. "The biggest message to the ecologically concerned markets is how critical it is that we have man-made products in cradle-to-cradle life cycles."

Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill Dow's NatureWorks™ PLA biodegradable polymer resin is derived from fermented corn sugars. It also will be chemically recyclable into new virgin-quality resin once the infrastructure is in place to process it, according to Michael O'Brien, Cargill Dow's communications leader.

In its production, PLA reduces the use of fossil resources by up to 50 percent over petrochemical-based polymer production. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 15 to 60 percent. Cargill Dow projects these reductions eventually could reach 80 to 100 percent.

The company is using grants from the US Department of Energy (DOE) to fund further research and development. One grant is being used to help develop technology to derive PLA from non-food parts of the corn plant. Another is helping Cargill Dow explore changing its energy feedstock. "This opens the door to allow us to make our own energy from renewable sources," O'Brien said.

Climatex® Lifecycle™ upholstery fabrics from DesignTex

Nylon 6: Closing The Loop

One example of technical nutrition is closed-loop nylon 6 recycling. For McDonough, its eco-effective,  cradle-to-cradle - as opposed to merely eco-efficient - nature means its consumption can be celebrated rather than decried as being wasteful. "Here is a material that is durable, color-retentive, stain-resistant, lasts as long as you'd ever want it to - and, in fact, lasts as short as you want it to," he said. "The fact that you can turn it back into itself means guilt disappears, and if you want to change your carpet from blue to pink after three years, we don't care because all you do is create jobs."

BASF, Mount Olive, N.J., established its Ontario-based 6ix Again® recycling program in 1994 to depolymerize used nylon 6 carpet fiber into caprolactam and water. The caprolactam is then repolymerized into virgin-quality nylon 6 polymer. BASF recycles carpet containing its own BASF Nylon 6ix® products, including SAVANT™ advanced engineered fiber containing 50-percent recycled content, Ultramid®, Zeftron® and solution-dyed Zeftron 2000; and any other nylon 6 carpet, as well as upholstery fabrics made from solution-dyed Zeftron 200 nylon. It also accepts and processes nylon 6,6 and backing systems. Tim Blount, BASF's carpet products marketing manager, reports the program has diverted millions of pounds of nylon from landfills.

"In today's sustainability-conscious commercial marketplace, there is increased interest and demand for fully renewable high-performance products," Blount said. "Our carpet mill customers, as well as the architect and design and specifying communities, are showing a high level of interest in the environmental attributes of the products we manufacture, as well as in ensuring a proper infrastructure for managing carpets once they have reached the end of their useful lives."

William McDonough (left) and Michael Braungart, Ph.D.

Carpet Face And Backing: Separate Pathways

Dalton, Ga.-based Shaw Industries Inc. offers carpets using BASF's SAVANT fiber and, through its Shaw Commercial Division, produces its own EcoSolution Q™ nylon 6 fiber for other carpet products. Steven L. Bradfield, vice president, environmental development, said most of its nylon 6 products, which comprise well over half of its total commercial carpet production, contain a minimum of 25-percent recycled content. Its annual consumption of recycled nylon 6 totals more than 20 million pounds. In addition, Shaw's total manufacturing operations recycle 75 percent of its production waste.

Bradfield said carpet must be seen in terms of both its face and its backing. "If you look at carpet as just a single entity that you're going to melt down and turn into something, then that something is not going to be the same carpet it was before. If you take the idea that it's a face and a backing, there are carpets at Shaw that we can actually separate and return to their original pathways," he said.

Bradfield pointed to Shaw's EcoWorx™ polyolefin thermoplastic carpet backing as an example. "[It] flows directly onto the back of the carpet cloth. It's a non-PVC [polyvinyl chloride] backing, and it's our largest-volume tile or six-foot backing - over 50 percent of our volume in these product types," he said. "EcoWorx meets or exceeds PVC testing and performance in every category. We developed EcoWorx for greater backing choice, for reducing material environmental impacts, for its lower long-term cost, and for its compatibility with nylon 6 breakdown."Shaw is ramping up capacity for EcoWorx production to provide all of its backing for carpet tile and six-foot modular carpet, and plans eventually to provide it for its high-performance broadloom carpet as well. The company also is evaluating its manufacturing processes, energy flux and raw materials to further develop its cradle-to-cradle strategy.

PLA upholstery fabrics from Interface Fabrics Group

Fabrics "Safe Enough To Eat"

Businesses can incur significant expense in order to comply with environmental and safety regulations. McDonough holds up Switzerland-based Rohner Textil as an example for US textile companies facing the need to cut costs in this country or go offshore.

MBDC worked with Rohner and New York City-based DesignTex, a division of Steelcase, to develop a biodegradable upholstery fabric that would be "safe enough to eat." At the time, Rohner, which had been complying with all the Swiss environmental regulations, found its fabric trimmings had been declared hazardous waste that could no longer be disposed of locally, and so had to be shipped to Spain.

The new fabric, Climatex® Lifecycle™, combines organically grown ramie with wool, and is dyed and finished using 16 nontoxic dyes and 22 auxiliaries and processing chemicals from Switzerland-based Ciba Specialty Chemicals Inc. Effluent tested since production began is cleaner than the water coming into the plant, and the fabric trimmings can be processed into felt for upholstery interliners or gardening mulch. As McDonough and Braungart tell the story, "Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable."

"Rohner was able to cut its costs by 20 percent because it got rid of regulation and was able to remove all sorts of restrictions on the way its people could function," McDonough said. "It could get rid of protective equipment; it doesn't have a percentage of its building allocated to hazardous materials storage; and it doesn't have any cost of hazardous waste being shipped to Spain." The mill's products also have been very successful in the marketplace.

"What was the other way to save costs for a company like Rohner?" McDonough asked. "Go offshore. And then, what happens to all those people with all that expertise in Switzerland? This is a critical agenda for the US textile industry. It can move into an unregulated event and compete with other places that are unregulated, but instead of being unregulated because nobody's paying attention, it's unregulated because it's not hurting anybody. It's a great way to differentiate quality."

Rohner licenses its Climatex technology to other textile makers, including Victor Innovatex, Canada, which supplies DesignTex with Climatex LifeguardFR™, a fire-retardant (FR) fabric using wool and Austria-based Lenzing AG's Redesigned LenzingFR™ cellulosic fiber treated with Switzerland-based Clariant's nontoxic FR finish. Climatex fabrics also are available from Carnegie, Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Ray C. Anderson, Interface chairman

Interface: An Epiphany

Ray C. Anderson, chairman of Atlanta-based Interface Inc., relates his company's journey toward sustainability in his book, "Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model." From its beginnings in 1973, Interface had sought simply to comply with environmental regulations, but in 1994, Anderson read "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken and experienced an epiphany. In that book, Hawken calls on business and industry to take the lead in reversing the environmental damage that has been wrought on Earth.

Anderson challenged Interface to play a premier role in the sustainability movement, ultimately "putting back more than we ourselves take and doing good to Earth, not just no harm - by helping or influencing others to reach toward sustainability." Since 1996, Interface has reduced its environmental footprint by one-third and cut operational waste by as much as half in some facilities, saving $209 million; reduced harmful emissions and increased its energy efficiency, reducing nonrenewable process energy by 18 percent; and reduced water consumption per unit of modular carpet production by 68 percent.

Eight Interface facilities generate renewable energy on-site or purchase green power. In 2001, green energy sources - including solar, wind, landfill gas, biomass and hydroelectric - provided 8.5 percent of the company's power needs worldwide. Two facilities in the United Kingdom purchase all of their electricity from green sources. By mid-2003, the company's plant in Canada expects to be totally powered by wind.

The company also has committed to using closed-loop, recycled raw materials and to reducing the amount of petroleum-derived raw materials, as sustainable technologies fall into place. Use of non-petrochemical-based materials in Interface products has increased by 24 percent since 1994. Interface Fabrics Group plans to introduce new PLA fabrics in its Terratex line by the end of this year, according to Wendy Porter, director of environmental management.

Product designer David Oakey said one-third of Interface product now contains recycled content. Oakey designs products to reduce waste, sometimes creating random designs, such as those found in Interface's Entropy™ line of carpet tiles, in order to reduce leftover materials.

Anderson is firm in his belief that industry must find ways to become sustainable. "If we don't figure out how to do it, the industrial system will collapse," he warns. He believes Interface's green initiatives are helping it survive in the current economic climate, stating, "Sustainability has transformed Interface into a company that is doing well by doing good."

Products Of Service

One solution to reducing landfill waste involves selling the service of a product - in effect leasing the product to the customer and retaining ownership of its components, while servicing and upgrading it as often as desired within a defined period of use. In describing a product of service, McDonough encourages a rethinking about the nature of a product. "The concept has to be transparent to customers in terms of their options. Even though they buy the product, it's effectively like a lease because the company wants it back as technical nutrition," he explained. The product must be designed to be cradle to cradle, and the manufacturer's relationship with the customer is optimized and maintained because the product is returned for reprocessing, he said.

Reaching The Destination

MBDC's Design Protocol for creating cradle-to-cradle products recognizes levels of environmental intelligence ranging from simply being free of a known toxic substance to being fully eco-effective - "pure innovation," McDonough said, citing as examples "a new kind of floor covering or a whole new way of making carpet that is designed to be cradle to cradle from scratch - or a new textile made from agricultural secondaries grown organically without petrochemical fertilizers and using wind power for processing."

But, he added, "The perfect product is going to be a pioneer in its own territory. The perfect carpet - designed with all new materials that are totally without all the residuals of all the wrong components - would never be given points in the marketplace or by green industry standards, because it didn't exist when the industry did a consensus process.

"We're looking for the highest performance around sustainable criteria," he continued, "not the lowest common denominator that can be used as a threshold for entry into the club of hope. We're looking for champions and fierceness."

March 2003