Fully biodegradable clothing – How SMEs implement innovations in sustainable clothing
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) like FREITAG, based in Zurich, Switzerland, can use innovation more convincingly and faster than large companies. The F-ABRIC collection can be considered as a prime example here.
- Sustainability has to be an integral part of a company’s core business and be actively implemented – the development of biodegradable clothes showcases this.
- The creation of a new, local and sustainable value chain in the apparel industry is possible and desirable.
- Small businesses can take the first-mover advantage in the area of Cradle to Cradle products and inspire large companies.
Sustainability can much easier be implemented in small enterprises than in large ones. I come to this conclusion also after reading an article published in Guardian Sustainable Business. This is an industry wide trend – from the electronics industry, food to clothing.
An example of this is not only the Dutch start up Fairphone (read about it in our book), which has set itself the goal of building a fair smartphone, but also the Swiss company FREITAG. FREITAG has become known for its bags made from recycled truck tarpaulins.
From an operational need arises an innovative circular product
In addition to the bags FREITAG is now also producing biodegradable clothing, which is also produced entirely in Europe. The idea for the product line came about when the team was looking for robust, biodegradable and locally produced work wear for its staff and could not find a suitable product. The materials FREITAG uses are produced from hemp, linen or modal, a fibre created during chemical processing from cellulose of natural origin. Not only the materials but also all associated logos and care instructions, the sewing thread and parts of the buttons rot after three months on the compost. The product can thus be disposed without effects on the environment. Hemp and flax (for linen) are grown in Central Europe; the different fabrics are woven in Italy and Portugal. This means that 100% of the value chain is based in Europe. In addition, the company omitted commodities such as cotton for its products. While cotton is of natural origin and also biodegradable, it cannot be grown locally and also needs plenty of water during its growth.
This procedure makes F-ABRIC, how FREITAG called this new fashion line, a Cradle to Cradle pioneer in the fashion industry. The products differ in terms of local sourcing and production significantly from the competition, such as the products of the company Trigema, which manufactures also biodegradable clothes. However, those are made out of Turkish cotton.
Innovation as a success factor for sustainable products
The success of F-ABRIC is based on 5 factors:
- FREITAG has shown that it is possible to introduce a local and environmentally friendly product. Suppliers are all local and a European value-added chain was created. Hence transport costs and CO2 emissions are reduced. In addition, this decreases delivery times and risks for the company. This showcases real innovation.
- FREITAG was able to expand its brand name as an environmentally conscious company. FREITAG therefore stands not only for bags but also for clothes. This will surely attract new customers in the future.
- A company like FREITAG that can be classified as an SME, as it has about 150 employees, can build up a new product portfolio much easier and more flexible than a company with thousands of employees. This possibility for positive change should be used increasingly also in other companies.
- Sustainability is viewed as part of the core business by the management team. This ensures that changes really take place and sustainability remains not only a matter of PR or marketing.
- There should be room for experimentation. It took several years until FREITAG could introduce
F-ABRIC. Short-term setbacks did not halt the concept as a whole.
Large fashion companies should be inspired by companies such as FREITAG and seek active exchange in order to combine the creativity of SMEs with the influence of large cooperations. Only this way, international companies can start to build up new value chains according to sustainable principles.