Material cycle innovations

Products made from raw materials that can be reused repeatedly? It works, according to the representatives of the Cradle-to-Cradle movement. And the first products following this principle come from Switzerland: Climatex upholstery fabrics are in circulation. To stay there, the focus is placed on recycling or composting raw materials.

By Yvonne von Hunnius, 28.10.2015

“The best product is one whose raw materials can be reused over and over again", says Andreas Heydasch. The CEO of Gessner AG textile company sits in a conference chair with dark blue upholstery at the corporate headquarters in Wädenswil, Switzerland. Just how close it comes to the vision of the cycle is hardly perceptible. It is upholstered with Climatex fabrics. Due to many of the chair’s features, you might even call it Swiss high-tech. When Heydasch lists them, he makes the priority clear: “Our materials are highly functional". They are climatising so that a person sweats less when seated – extremely durable, fire-resistant and much more. This makes them perfect for seating furniture in airports or hotels. “Plus, all Climatex products are Cradle-to-Cradle certified – their components are continuously circulating, so that there is no waste", says Heydasch.

About Andreas Heydasch: Economist and political scientist Andreas Heydasch has been active for 25 years in the international textile industry. CEO of Gessner AG since 2013, he is responsible for sales, marketing and development. Gessner has produced textiles on Lake Zurich for almost 175 years, but specialised in Climatex textiles in 2008, which now makes up one hundred percent of its production.

Documenting the material flows
“Cradle to cradle” is a play on the expression "cradle to grave". Anyone who does business according to this principle must ensure that their product can start life over again at the end of its service life. To do so, developers have to design products intelligently, and this starts with the raw materials. It must be possible to break down products into their individual components, which must be pure materials, so that they can be recycled or composted with the same level of quality. Poisons or inseparable components may not be used. The social conditions of the suppliers are also a key concern.

Scientists Michael Braungart and William McDonough are the architects of this movement – 3,500 products worldwide have already been “Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) certified according to the criteria. 27 companies, including Climatex and Stoll Giroflex, a Swiss office chair manufacturer, align their entire companies with these criteria. This entails documenting all material flows – and suppliers have to participate.

The giroflex 313 Cradle-to-Cradle chair
© Stoll Giroflex

Climatex’s pioneering role
The first C2C product was a Climatex fabric. Since 1993, meticulous efforts have been made to combine low-waste production with functional fabrics – starting with Rohner Textiles, a company based in the Rhine Valley. For Albin Kälin, Rohner’s then managing director, this was more than just an opportunity to lead his company out of the textile crisis. It was a way to deal with the costs of treating wastewater from fabric dyes and the costs of disposing scrap waste from weaving. The new products won many international honours and much acclaim. Today, Kälin is CEO of EPEA, a Swiss consulting agency that certifies C2C products. Gessner AG continues to produce Climatex products – just like Rohner once did, its former parent company and part of a longstanding tradition. In 2016, Gessner celebrated its 175th year of existence. According to Andreas Heydasch, it still feels like a start-up. With 260 employees, the company may be lean, but is still quite productive, says Heydasch. Climatex has to be as well. Production is carried out entirely in Switzerland, and there is strong international competition in the textile business.  

Competitive focus
Gessner furnishes airplane and train compartments for Swiss partner Lantal Textiles. But it also has its sights set on the automobile industry, which is known for tough supplier management. It works closely with the electric vehicle departments of large auto manufacturers, which value climitisation increasingly. According to Heydasch, Climatex fabrics not only meet the C2C criteria, they are also lighter than their competitors’ fabrics – their temperature regulating features lighten the load for air conditioners, which saves energy and helps extend service life.

Textilien von Climatex
For such Climatex textiles, wool and synthetic fibres are combined with the “textile screw” (Dualcycle Collection), which allows them to be separated from each other. They can be used on upholstered furniture in automobile, transport and other segments.
© Gessner / Climatex

Climatex does not want to position itself in the small premium segment, but rather compete in the upper middle range by meeting all functionality requirements in addition to Cradle-to-Cradle certification. A recent Climatex development has helped with this: the patented Dualcycle System’s “textile screw”. This joining technology makes it possible to combine wool and synthetic fibres so that they can be separated at the end of the product's service life. Wool can be composted, and polyamide can be recycled. This affords Climatex certain advantages because these two important materials can be combined economically with each other. Though expensive, wool is essential because of its climatising effect, while synthetic fibres, for instance, ensure efficient flame retardation and a long service life.

Red Dot Awards recipients: The giroflex 353 visitor’s chair, the giroflex 353 conference chair and the giroflex 656 conference chair were winners of prestigious Red Dot Awards in 2014. All three comply with Cradle-to-Cradle principles.
© Stoll Giroflex

“The big picture is decisive”
Norbert Egli, a life cycle and eco-design expert at Basel-based Tridee consulting firm says that this can be a good solution if the weight can be kept lower than the competitors’ products. Weight is a key criterion in lowering the total environmental impact, especially when it comes to moving goods, such as in the case of transport. It saves energy and prevents emissions such as CO2 and air pollutants. Even though the expert believes that the material cycle is a key concept, he does not think that recycling materials is necessarily the best way per se. He advocates using eco-design principles to find specific approaches that will ensure an effective reduction of a product’s total environment impact throughout its service life (see Fact box 1).

Fact box I

A key methodological issue of life cycle assessments

According to expert Norbert Egli, a key methodological issue is at the centre of the debate over the most logical approach to resource-efficient and environmentally-friendly product development: “Is it helpful when individual aspects of a product’s specific life phases are optimised?” His answer: “Yes, but only when it is proven, after considering all environmental aspects, that these individual aspects are actually relevant to the ‘entire environmental performance’ of the product concerned”. Bearing this in mind, a C2C certificate may only be ‘ecologically useful’ if it is also proven that the product’s ecologically relevant impacts would actually be improved over its entire life cycle by the selected product design. This includes not only the product’s features, but also the effects of the consumption of raw materials, product manufacturing, use, reuse and disposal. In 2011, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) published the “Quality Requirements for Environmental Information – Development, Definition and Application of Quality Requirements for Reporting the Environment Impacts of Consumption and Production” report. The goal was to improve the quality and availability of environmental information and provide a reliable overall view. It also explains how relevant environmental impacts are recognised and can be influenced in specific decision-making situations over the entire service life of a product.

To that effect, eco-design representative Norbert Egli says that the eco-design and C2C approaches differ in how they determine which environmental impacts and life phases should be assessed. Michael Braungart, one of the founders of the Cradle-to-Cradle movement, says that it is quite simply wrong to produce things that contaminate the biosphere. He says: “From the angle of effectiveness, we must first ask, what is right and then do what is right". And in Norbert Egli’s opinion, eco-design, for instance, does not view the circulation of materials as the “only right thing" to do for every product. Other environmental impacts could damage the environment a lot more.

Fact box II

Stoll Giroflex office furniture in circulation

Swiss office furniture manufacturer Stoll Giroflex AG has gradually integrated the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy in its company since 2010. Climatex is one of the textiles it uses. Giroflex explains that owners of office chairs can use them for over ten years, and during that time, their skin is in constant contact with the fabrics, plastics and metals. That is why all its materials are free of hazardous substances and do not release gases. Giroflex states that seating furniture is disassembled at the end of its service life – for example, the giroflex 656 is completely taken apart in one hour – and the materials are returned into the appropriate cycles.


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Last modification 03.11.2015

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